Material Reductionism – The Past Mythology of the Future?

By Adam J. Pearson


To the Ancient Greeks, it once seemed, as they felt the Earth violently trembling beneath their feet, that nothing could explain such a mysterious and astoundingly mighty phenomenon than that they must have offended the great god Poseidon. There was a time when such an explanatory theory seemed the epitome of obviousness, so evident, in fact, as to seem to be common sense and safely able to be taken for granted.

Is this not how material reductionism–the ontological perspective that only “matter” and its properties are ultimately real— now seems to us? Ours is a theory much more substantiated by high-powered empirical technology and more refined conceptual modes of understanding, to be sure. But how often has the science of today later been revealed to have been but the mythology of tomorrow?

What if the trend were to continue even for our most sacred of the philosophy of science’s sacred cows, material reductionism itself? I suspect that one day, the human beings of the future will look back on our material reductionism the same way that our generation looks back on the rudimentary myths that Ancient cultures devised to explain earthquakes.

The scientists of the future may one day smile with amusement at how we could possibly imagine a mythological entity called “matter” to have been ‘real’ in the same way that the Ancient Greeks once thought the idea of Poseidon causing earthquakes to be real.

Reflecting on our own notion of matter, they might think, well “that was a noble and well-meaning attempt to explain an apparent phenomenon that more sophisticated interpretive frameworks and technologies have revealed to not be like that at all, a crude artifact of a past metaphysics that lingered into the philosophy of science like a relatively useless vestigial limb. How antiquated was their understanding that reality could be understood in terms of “things” with “properties! They should be admired for having done their best with the crude conceptual , terminological, and technological tools available to them at the time, like Homo Erecti hammering away with rough-hewn tools, but how very far from the truth they were!”

In fact, it may very well be the case that the human beings of the future will realize that there never really was such a thing as “matter” at all, at least not as we once imagined it to be. The truth will gradually dawn on them that “atom,” “electron,” “proton,” “quark,” and so on were only ever modes of thought that we once found to be useful tools with which to interpret empirically testable and predictable compartmentalized aspects of a seamlessly nondual yet phenomenologically multidimensional manifold that cannot be separated into ‘knowable’ chunks except through distortion and decontextualization.

As this illuminating paradigm shift unfolds, the idea of material reductionism will begin to dissolve in the acid of more nuanced and finessed modes of understanding until it eventually seems as absurd to the scientists of the future as the notion that Poseidon causes earthquakes seems to scientists today. This is what I predict will happen as humanity moves from material reductionism to some as of yet inconceivable postmaterialism or postphysicalism.

Indeed, it seems me that the scientific technological instruments of the future will enable future scientists to look back on our current understandings of electron probability clouds distributed into orbitals with the same amusement that contemporary physicists feel when they look back at Democritus’ “indivisible” atom. They will look upon our most high-tech functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies in precisely the same way that contemporary internet-users see the once cutting-edge communicative technology of the telegram.

Seen, or perhaps foreseen in this way, it seems strange, therefore, to believe in material reductionism, as if it were some ‘finally’ or ‘ultimately’ true description of the world when it can be seen as a small historical stepping stone in a much vaster chain of steps of the human mind to grapple with the mystery of “what is.” “Matter,” human beings will one day realize, is a conceptual crutch on which future ways of thinking will no longer need to lean. In this way, it will come to be seen by future theorists as a crude and rudimentary explanatory framework long rendered obsolete, the ‘matter’ of a brief footnote in the History section of an as of yet unwritten future textbook.

Instead of siding with the best guess of today, it seems wiser, then, if we would like to consider the universe sub specie aeternitatis, to quote Spinoza, to hearken to the better judgment of our future descendants and look upon¬† “matter” with the same openness to new understanding, new modes of thought, and new scientific and philosophical wisdom. What if, when we look at the “material world,” we were not to assume that the concept of “matter” itself was ultimately real? Would the “world” not open up in utter freshness, like the dew-spotted petals of a springtime ruby rose, in the newborn wide openness of the world as it once seemed to us as infants?