Thursday, January 11, 2007

Matter and Spirit

God is spirit. The body is matter.

We often assume that spirit and matter are fundamentally different in nature. Matter is spatial. Spirit is not. Matter is divisible. Spirit is not. Matter is governed by blind physical law that takes no account of purpose. Spirit is not. Rather in all that it does it takes purpose into account. Matter is finite. (Perhaps there is an infinite amount of matter, but any bit of matter that we might consider is finite is extent. Moreover, whatever characteristic of matter we might care to consider - weight, size, momentum, etc. - is always finite in quantity.) Spirit is infinite. (It is not infinite in extent, for it is not spatial. But those qualities that it possess it possess infinitely. Its power, knowledge and goodness and all the rest are infinite.) Matter is quantifiable in a myriad of ways - it is of so much weight, such and such size, etc. Spirit is not quantifiable in this way.

Thus there's little wonder that we think matter and spirit fundamentally different. But let us pause for a moment and consider what's been said in the light of the Incarnation. Christ is both spirit and matter. He is the two joined. Thus we must say that at bottom there can be no opposition between them. Matter is such that it take house spirit. Spirit is such that it can take up residence in matter.

How is this possible? How can the spatial and the non-spatial (the divisible and the indivisible, the finite and the infinite, etc.) be joined so that they form a genuine unity? I do not know. It is a mystery to me.

Let me sharpen the question. Christ is both matter and spirit. But should we say that he is infinite as spirit is infinite or finite as matter is finite? He must be one, and he cannot be both. But if he is merely finite, it seems that spirit has within him lost an aspect of its essential character; and if he is infinite, it seems that he cannot be matter, for the finitude of matter is essential to it.

Do we say that, qua spirit, Christ is infinite, and, qua matter, he is finite? Perhaps. But then we are left to explain what's meant by this 'qua' in such a way that the unity of spirit and matter in Christ is preserved. I am at a loss about how to do so.

7 comments:

C Grace said...

It is not only Christ who is matter and spirit but we as well, at least as I understand it. What are your beliefs in this matter?

Franklin Mason said...

It is not only Christ who is matter and spirit but we as well . . ..

Right. But it seems to me that the sort of spirit present within us is of a radically different kind than that present in God. My view is, roughly, Aristotle's (and Thomas'): the human soul is the form of the human body and thus is such that it essentially ensouls the body. There can be no soul without the body; indeed the soul is, as it were, in its very definition fitted to just the sort of body we have. The soul is (something like) the proper function of the body, and thus when the body ceases, so too must the soul. (How, then, can we be immortal? There are answers to that question.)

Thus it seems no real mystery to me that the soul should be harnessed to the body.

But the sort of spirit found in God is not thus essentially wedded to a body. Instead it is independent of it. I do not know, then, how it could be possible to harness God to a body if, as we so often assume, matter and God-spirit are such radically different kinds of things. I suspect that they are not.

I suspect, then, that the Incarnation shows us that there is no radical opposition between spirit and matter. In some sense of "one", they must at bottom be one. The Doctrine of the Incarnation seems to lead naturally to some sort of metaphysical monism.

C Grace said...

"I suspect, then, that the Incarnation shows us that there is no radical opposition between spirit and matter."

I see what you are driving at now. This makes a lot of sense. I suspect that at the heart of the metaphysical monism is God's action, His energy, impulse or will -however you want to call it.

"But it seems to me that the sort of spirit present within us is of a radically different kind than that present in God."

I would argue that we have the potential to recieve the sort of spirit that is present in God, that in fact the spirit is to the soul somewhat like the soul is to the body.

Franklin Mason said...

I would argue that we have the potential to recieve the sort of spirit that is present in God, that in fact the spirit is to the soul somewhat like the soul is to the body.

I'd never formulated that thought before. Interesting.

Perhaps spirit, or divinity, is the form of the soul.

I'll have to chew on that.

C Grace said...

By the way form is one of those concepts I have only the barest notion of, but not something I can put into words. Would you mind defining it for me? I think if I understood it, it would be extremely helpful in some of my conceptualizations of the essence of man.

Franklin Mason said...

I know Aristotle better than Thomas. I'll give you (a version of) his definition of form.

Consider Socrates. He is, from the metaphysical point of view, a composite of a certain sort. He is a composite of form and matter. (Such a thing is sometimes called a hylomorphic compound, and the doctrine itself is called hylomorphism.) The matter is (roughly) the bone, blood, muscle and all the rest. But of course the mere fact that there exists bone, blood, muscle does not by itself imply that Socrates exists. On the contrary, for Socrates to exist, the bone, blood, muscle etc. must be organized so that, together, they can carry out the biological functions constituent of Socrates' humanity. This organization and its concomitant proper biological function is the form of Socrates.

The form is itself immaterial, in existence precedes its presence with the body of Socrates, and, unlike matter, is susceptible of definition. (About definition: one can say - quite precisely - just how the matter in the human body is arranged and how the organ-systems of the human body function. It's the sort of thing found in biology and psychology textbooks. When one gives these descriptions, one has said what form is.

So, then, form makes the difference between life and death - between a mere collection of bone, blood, muscle, etc. and that vital organization of these things characteristic of human life. Moreover, for Aristotle (as for Thomas) form is not some mere causally inefficacious abtraction. It is (for Aristotle at least) more real than matter in the sense that it is that which organizes matter in a way so as to make it capable of life. It is the primary agent in the creation and sustenance of life. (This does not mean that it acts in independence of, or in isolation from, matter. Rather it works through matter, and if form were removed from matter, matter would revert to its most basic and hence lifeless forms.)

Recently some have attempted to identify form with the information encoded in DNA. The best example of this of which I know is Holmes Rolston.

That's about the best I can do. Hope it helps.

C Grace said...

I think I see what you are saying. Would you say then that form is the characteristic action of a thing? So to say that the soul is the form of the human body is to say that it is what makes the body act as it does?

The question about DNA is interesting. Would DNA contain the essential form of the body and the soul add onto this basic form it's own essence? The soul would then interpenetrate and refine the form of the body. Then the combination of the two essences would constitute the form of the man?