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Materialism’s Failures: Hylemorphism’s Vindication

Scientific materialists propose certain epistemological and ontological claims, allegedly in the name of natural science, that conflict with man’s common sense experience of the world. This article will show (1)  that such claims are not based on sound natural science, but the assumed philosophy of materialism, (2) that the materialist/atomist worldview is fundamentally flawed, and (3) that hylemorphism offers scientifically-compatible alternatives that align with reality.

Materialism's Epistemological Blunder

Human knowledge begins with sense experience, including that of immediately-given extramental  physical reality. Scientists make observations and take measurements of this world and stoutly maintain that a vast physical cosmos exists.

Yet, sensation’s scientific description begins with external physical objects, which impact external sense organs (in vision’s case, the eyes), causing chain reaction impulses through the retina and optic nerve, resulting in changes in the brain’s occipital lobe. This leads many to think that all we really know through sensation is some sort of neural pattern, image, representation, or even “hallucination” inside the brain – a representation, but not a direct experience, of external physical reality itself.

To save natural science from epistemological idealism, many scientific materialists argue that science remains objective, because the brain rather accurately represents external objects. They will cite many scientific tests which appear to confirm that the internal image quite perfectly represents external reality -- so that scientific measurements can be taken as accurate and our depiction of physical reality is “scientifically correct.”

Still, if literally all we know are internal neural patterns or images of external reality, how can we verify their conformity to external reality at all? Even by millions of experiments?

To determine whether A conforms to B entails knowing both A and B. Just to know A, but not B – and still make any judgment at all about A conforming to B – is obviously impossible.

The irresolvable problem is that to judge the conformity of internal experience to extramental reality absolutely requires some direct experience of external reality – even as the basis for all further observations and testing of exactly how the physiology works as well as it does.

Materialism's Encroachment on Science

Scientific materialists often fail to distinguish between (1) the neural changes in the brain and (2) the subjective experience of sensing. The former are physically observable neural patterns; the latter are subjective experiences that cannot be subject to physical observation.

Science traces physiological phenomena from the external world into the brain. Science can say the physical sequence terminates inside the brain. But science cannot say that knowledge takes place inside the brain, because knowledge is not itself an observable phenomenon. Science can look at neural patterns “from the outside,” but it cannot look at subjective sense experience “from the inside.”

Sensory neural activity is located inside the brain. But, the only way to infer from that fact that all knowledge is located inside the brain is by illicitly adding the assumption that sense knowledge is a purely material phenomenon, which can be spatially located. Such an assumption does not come from natural science, but from the philosophy of materialism.

When metaphysical materialism’s philosophical claims are gratuitously added to the findings of natural science, they turn scientists into bad philosophers and make their proclamations the conclusions of bad philosophy, rather than good science.

The Immateriality of Sense Experience

If sense knowledge is claimed to take place solely in the brain, this means that (1) the act of knowing and (2) the object known must be physically located inside the brain. And yet, as I have shown elsewhere, sense experience itself cannot be a purely physical entity.

While material things are extended and located in space, sense experience is immaterial in that it is neither extended in space nor physically located. This does not mean that sense experience is spiritual in nature, since spiritual entities are not only not extended in space but also are existentially independent of anything that is extended in space. Still, sense experience depends on material organs for its operation.

Sense experience must not be confused with a sense image. Sense experience begins with direct apprehension of an extramental object, such as a menacing lion. But, a sense image is merely an internal representation of some previously experienced sensed object. The present discussion is primarily about sense experience of extramental things, not images – although both are immaterial entities as evinced by them not being extended in space.

Sense experience is of the whole object seen (in the case of vision). When we see a tree, we see the whole tree – top and bottom, left and right side – all at once in a single act of sensing. The only way any physical entity can represent the whole of any other physical entity is by one part representing one part and another diverse part representing a different part. Thus recording devices store images of objects by using many thousands of diverse bits, each representing a different part of, say, a tree. TV screens and computer monitors do the same, because hundreds of thousands of bits are needed to fully present a screen image.

The old electron gun televisions sweep the screen rapidly with electrons, creating an image composed of illuminated phosphors. While we see the whole picture all at once, the only way to unify the whole image on the screen itself is to collapse the deflection current of the vertical and horizontal output stages, thus making all the electrons hit the same central point on the screen – thereby, creating a single point of light. The image is destroyed. (This phenomenon occurs briefly when you turn off these sets.)  Such a result is unavoidable, since any extended image can be represented on any extended medium solely by having diverse parts of the medium representing diverse parts of the image. Otherwise, all data converges into an indecipherable mass. “Unity” destroys the “image” in purely physical media.

This is because any physically extended image or extramental data must be composed of distinct parts, since all material entities are composed of distinct parts in space. But, if sense experience is of the whole, and yet simple and completely unified, this requires that all such distinct parts be conjoined onto a single “receiving material point” (if that is even possible). But, to do that, all the distinct parts of the data must be so conjoined as to cancel each other’s distinct content, which would make the single “receiving point” totally lacking in any distinct parts, and hence, absolutely incapable of representing the image or data at all. In a word, all data would be so overlayed upon itself as to lose all intelligible or decipherable content. Such analysis would apply even to the most infinitesimally-small physical particles, since whatever is material is extended in space and, as such, has distinct parts.

What this means is that sense experience of an external physical entity is not itself extended in space, whereas any physical entity is always extended in space. Thus, the sense experience of a physically real entity must not itself be a physical entity! And if the sense experience is not a physical entity, this also means that the subjective sense experience cannot be identical with physical brain activity!

Thus, materialism’s central claim that to be is to be physical is dead wrong.

Materialism can be easily tested in our own experience. We see the physical world around us all at once – in a single act that somehow unifies its entire content. We know that material things -- extended in space -- can never unify experience without placing its content on top of itself so as to render its parts indistinguishable and unintelligible. Therefore, we have immediate experience (seeing a whole in a unified act) taking place in a way that contradicts materialism’s basic tenet that all reality is extended and located in space (even energy or force fields).

Moreover, since what is not extended in space is also not located in space, this means that the inference that sense experience is located inside the brain cannot be true. Sense experience of extramentally-given objects simply cannot be located at all, even though it is associated with neural patterns located inside the brain.

Only Partially Dependent on Brain Activity

While sense experience is dependent upon sense organs for its actualization, it is not physically identical to those bodily organs or to the neural activity taking place in them. If brain or end organ activity ceases or is damaged, sense experience ceases or is impaired, which shows some form of dependence of sense experience on brain activity.

But, sense experience actually does something that no purely material entity can do, namely, the immaterial act of unifying the experience of external physical reality, or the internal image, into a simple whole. Therefore, its immaterial nature – precisely because it is immaterial and unitive -- must be superior to that of any purely material organ or neural activity. Now, an inferior cause cannot produce a superior effect, that is, materiality cannot account for immateriality. Thus, while it cannot exist without brain activity, sense experience must get its immateriality from some other source than material brain activity.

Since sense experience is neither located nor extended in space, the fact that it is associated with neural activity that is limited to the inside of the brain offers no reason to assume that experiential content itself must be limited to the inside of the brain – especially given that our immediate experience is primarily of an extramental physical world. But the real question is how can such direct experience of the world take place in spite of being associated with intracranial brain activity? Is there an ontological basis for saying that our senses somehow enable us to directly apprehend extramental reality? To answer this question, we must recognize that materialism misses a central immaterial component of all reality, a component that helps explain how the senses allow the sentient knower to know to its physical environment directly.

What has thus far been discovered is an immaterial act of sense experience, somehow existing “within” us, but not identical with the neural brain activity that scientific materialism mistakenly confuses with sense experience. The question now is how can this immaterial sense experience directly reach an extramental physical world, when the brain activity associated with it is located inside the brain?

Another Materialist Fiasco: No Substantial Forms

As explained elsewhere on Strange Notions, scientific materialism’s “twin sister,” atomism (the claim that all reality is nothing but tiny physical particles) fails to explain a reality that few want to give up, namely, their own existence as living substantial unities. In a video on atheistic materialism I showed that, according to the logic inherent in their own basic claims, atomists, such as Richard Dawkins, do not really exist. Atomism exists as a philosophy, but atomists don’t!

Combine oxygen and hydrogen and you get water. But are water molecules substantial unities, or not? Are they single things, distinct from everything else – or, are they still just oxygen and hydrogen atoms, temporarily sharing outer orbit electrons? If you say they are still separate atoms -- just sharing electrons, that is what atomism implies.

Atomism maintains that nothing really exists above atomic level (whatever ultimate physical particles these “atoms” may really be). That means that no macroscopic, substantially-unified things exist – not cockroaches, not kangaroos, not horses, and not human beings (including Dr. Dawkins). There may be amazingly-complex chemical bonding found in dynamic functional unities based on DNA rules (organisms), but none of it constitutes a substantial unity -- a real being distinct from other things: just countless infinitesimal particles doing a cosmic dance with different sets of temporary partners.

But what if those hydrogen and oxygen atoms really form an existential bond creating a single substantial unity? What if sequoias and zebras and Dr. Dawkins really do exist? Then, what makes them one being?

Here Aristotle’s hylemorphism rescues materialists from the irrational consequences of their doctrine.

Hylemorphism recognizes the necessity of some unifying principle in macroscopic things. This necessary principle is called “substantial form” -- an immaterial co-principle of material beings that makes them substantially one, puts them into a species, and accounts for how they act. Being one substance means that every bodily part shares the same substantial form. For human beings, the form of one’s stomach is not “stomach-ness,” but “humanness.” The form of one’s big toe is not “big toe-ness,” but “humanness.” The human substantial form, or soul (life principle), makes us one being by pervading every iota of our being that is truly “us.”

Some “parts” are not us, such as one’s intestinal flora or the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs. But, if one excluded every part of us reductively, there would be no “us” left to be human. So, whatever in us that is human shares the same immaterial substantial form (soul). If we lose a hand or foot, we are not less human, but there is a little less of us (quantitatively) to be human. Thus, form is present everywhere, and yet, physically is nowhere, since it is immaterial. Substantial form acts throughout the whole substance to make it be one single being of the same nature throughout its whole reality.

How does the substantial form’s immateriality enable sentient beings to directly experience extramental reality? Just as sense experience is not locatable in space, neither is the soul. The soul operates through its faculties, such as sense faculties that enable us to directly know extramental things – as they are given to the end organs of the senses. (Thus, we do not know Alpha Centauri as 4.3 light years away, but as its light is now externally present to the eyes.)

Once materialism’s “located in space” spell is broken, the immaterial soul and its immaterial faculties enable us to interact as a whole with extramental physical things – without having to specify the location of the sense faculties any more than one must physically locate the soul in one’s big toe. The soul and its powers are present in the organism and to extramental reality through its activities, but without us being able to “empirically verify” its exact location, because it has none.

There is no “mechanism” by which sentient organisms directly experience extramental things, since sense experience is not a mechanistic physical thing. Yet, clearly, sense experience exists, is immaterial in nature, and gives direct experience of bodies – as they are extramentally-given to the end organs of the senses.

Materialism's Evident Falsity

While materialism is hugely wrong elsewhere, including its denial of the human soul’s spirituality and its denial of God’s existence, I presently focus on points where materialism’s falsity is most manifest: (1) its failure to recognize that sense experience must be immaterial, and (2) its failure to recognize that substantial forms are real and absolutely needed to explain how real things can exist above the submicroscopic level.

Elsewhere on Strange Notions, I have offered proofs for the human soul’s spirituality and immortality as well as proofs for God’s existence. But those topics have a long history of contentious debate, which can confuse those who do not understand them thoroughly. The present article’s advantage is that it employs phenomena anyone can immediate experience.

No one can honestly deny the unity and wholeness of his sense experience, and no sane person denies his own substantial existence. These immediately-evident experiences, when combined with a little thought about the nature of matter and atomism as explained above, lead to a powerful conclusion that purely physical matter is not all that is real.

We do not live in a world of complex piles of atoms in which nothing has any substantial unity. Rather, substantial forms enable macroscopic things to be real and to be classified according to internal principles of unity and common activity. We do live in a world in which the human intellect can penetrate and classify reality based on whole, substantially-unified beings – from atoms to atomists -- whose natures are revealed through their activities.

Hylemorphism provides realistic solutions to the mistakes of materialism. Materialism traps the materialist inside his own brain from which hylemorphism frees him by pointing out that immaterial sense experience is not spatially located. The human immaterial soul explains the substantial unity of man in which his immaterial sense faculties can be present to the whole body and to extramental reality.

Hylemorphism rescues atomists’ personal existence by affirming the reality of substantial forms, which make them substantially-unified macroscopic beings.

Materialism is empirically contradicted (1) by our ability to sense wholes and (2) by our immediate experience of our own substantial unity – which phenomena are easily explained respectively by (1) immaterial cognitive faculties,  and (2) immaterial substantial forms. Materialism’s failures are remedied by the hylemorphic worldview.

Why would anyone want to be a materialist when materialism cannot even explain how a whole (substantially unified) dog can see and chase a whole (perceptually unified) cat?

Dr. Dennis Bonnette

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Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He taught philosophy there for thirty-six years and served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He lives in Youngstown, New York, with his wife, Lois. They have seven adult children and twenty-five grandchildren. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years, and is now teaching free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy in Lewiston, New York. He is the author of two books, Aquinas' Proofs for God's Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) and Origin of the Human Species (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, third edition, 2014), and many scholarly articles.

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