The English word ‘immaterial’ has an interesting couple of meanings, based on two different meanings of their root word, matter. One meaning of matter, that of physical substance, has it’s root in the latin word materia, ‘substance, timber’. The other, that of the subject or problem under discussion comes from the word mater, ‘mother’, i.e. what gave rise to this discussion. These two roots give rise to the two meanings that at first glance may seem highly related, especially given the materilistic slant of much of Western popular philosophy, that
1. Something immaterial is something that cannot be physically interacted with, which has no resting mass,
2. Something immaterial is something that is irrelevant, something that makes no difference to the discussion at hand.
Some people seem to act as though one meaning is the same as the other, that whatever cannot be physically interacted with is irrelevant and makes no difference, effectively (or literally) not existing at all.
Let’s look at that for a moment. Think of your favourite story. What is it, materially?
Is it a set of photons meeting your optic nerve as you read it?
Is it a series of electrical, optical or radio signals as it is transmitted to your computer?
Is it a series of pressure variations recognised as sound waves when it is read to you by your father or friend, or an actor, or a text-to-speech application?
Is it a set of magnetic ones and zeroes stored on a hard disk, e-reader or flash disk?
Is it an arrangement of pigments on a piece of paper (or lack of pigments on a piece of paper, black text on white versus white on black or any of a kaleidoscope of contrasting colours)?
Is it an arrangement of pebbles or scrapings in sand, holes punched in metal or card or magnetic letters on a fridge?
Is it complex chemical reactions in your brain as you read it, or as you remember it? In the author’s brain as he writes it, in the editor’s brain as he corrects it, in the reviewer’s brain as he dissects it, in your friend’s brain as he talks about his favourite parts or characters with you?
Isn’t it all of the above and more? The intellectual content is the main thing, the immaterial is the most material.
This is not to say that the physical side of things is irrelevant or something evil to be escaped from, far from it, that there is a physical world independent of us is a wonderful thing. Through physical media we can communicate with other minds in so many ways, we can create marks, shapes, structures, sounds and sensations for others to experience and understand in a myriad of ways (the list above is a tiny fraction of the possibilities)
Through the physical world we can meet each other’s physical, social and spiritual needs:
We can build houses to protect people from the harsh extremes of our many different environments,
We can make tools that ease others’ daily workload so they can specialise and excel.
We can farm productively and feed a whole community.
We can investigate and explore the secrets of our universe for others to harness their power and enable true progress to be made.
We can start a company that provides a needed or desired good or service, helping and enriching hundreds or thousands or millions of lives, providing for yourself and your family, enabling others to work and provide for themselves and their families.
We can sculpt a beautiful form or image, insightful and invigorating story, verse or song, inspiring other souls to soar, touch a piece of heaven and come back down to earth changed, touched, and on a better path.
We can come alongside and comfort those in pain, share their burdens and give them strength to carry on.
All of these things and more are possible thanks to the physical world we inhabit.
As Genesis 1:31 puts it:
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Next in the series: The Joy of Borrowed Time