Ruminations

“‘Mind’ And ‘Matter'”

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by Msgr. Ronald Knox

I talk about mind and matter, I am not going to attempt any precise definition of those terms; I am going to use them in a popular sense, the good, old-fashioned sense in which they were used by late-Victorian journalists. In that loose sense, the two terms between them exhaust our experience; everything of which we are conscious falls under one head or the other. Matter stands for all those things other than oneself, outside oneself (if I may use such grossly popular terms), which form the object of one’s experience; it is the brute fact which you can’t get away from, the rude reality which obtrudes itself into your thought. If you are in the dentist’s chair and shut your eyes and try to imagine that you are in a hot bath or in a punt on the river, that relentless drill comes buzzing round and having fun with your nerves, the symbol of matter triumphing over mind, insisting on making itself felt and being taken into consideration. The pleasant kingdom of the mind has no real frontiers to defend it; our thought cannot just select its own objects, as it would like to, they force themselves upon it; there is a something not ourselves which we cannot control or organize at will; let that, serve for our very inadequate definition of matter.

But matter doesn’t cover the whole of our experience; there can be no experience unless there is a mind to do the experiencing. If you tell a man to count how many people there are in the room, the odds are that he will return the figure one short, because by a trick of unconscious modesty he will have forgotten to include himself. And in the same sort of way unreflective people will be so absorbed in the things which are the objects of their experience, that they will forget the part which their mind plays in it all. I remember long ago, when he was a young don, the present Archbishop of York telling me that he was talking to a working man who had given expression to some rather materialist sentiments; and he turned on the young man and challenged him to prove his own existence. To which his only reply was, ” Ow, don’t talk like that; you make me feel quite funny.” “Well, of course, some people don’t like feeling funny, and try to forget their own existence in the steady contemplation of outward fact. But it won’t do; if you have persuaded the dentist to give you a whiff of gas, all that business with the drill can’t get itself across; your mind is free-wheeling away in delightful avenues of experience, discovering profound philosophical secrets which it tries to explain to the dentist on waking up, only to find that the secret is just a meaningless string of words. Strictly speaking, if you come to think of it, existence as you know it is divided exactly in half; one half is the things you know and the other half is your mind knowing them.

That we can’t fail to realize, the moment we stop to think about it. But what does give us an uncomfortable feeling about this relation of mind to matter is the fact that our minds are so closely wedded to our brains, and through them to our patently material bodies. An accident to the brain can send a man mad for the rest of his life; and there are all sorts of other ways, you can easily think of dozens of them, in which matter seems to have the whip hand over mind; indigestion, drunkenness, drugs, and so on, all affecting the life of the mind through the life of the body. So that it looks as if the mind had to play second fiddle after all; and people who like to use sham-scientific language will not be slow to tell you that the processes of the mind are only a function of the brain. That word “function” is a glorious piece of mumbo-jumbo; it means, in that connection, exactly nothing whatever. It may be true that each mental experience you have is connected with, nay, so far as our present experience goes, is inseparably connected with, some little groove inside one’s brain; I wish I could ever learn how to talk scientific language properly. But that isn’t to say that your thought is the same thing as the groove in your brain, which would obviously be nonsense. And to say that the one is a function of the other is simply introducing a mathematical term to cover up the nonsense. What does happen, if you come to think of it, when a person goes mad; what do we really know about it? All we know is, that the mind can only receive its impressions, can only express itself, through a mysterious liaison with the material body which belongs to it. When that liaison is disturbed, I suppose you have the same kind of situation that you have when a deaf organist is playing on an organ in which all the stops are out of tune. He may be the best organist in the world, but the noise that comes out will be simply beastly, because the organ with which he is expressing himself is quite inadequate to his powers of performance. We simply don’t know what has happened to the mind; all we know is that there has been an interruption in its sources of communication with the outside world.

But there is another temptation, I think, that most of us have had at times, which makes us think of mind as somehow inferior to matter. I mean the idea that mind is something unnecessary, a sort of additional detail which has somehow blossomed out from matter like flowers from the branches of a tree. Matter is the solid, self-subsistent thing; is mind anything better than a mysterious excrescence on it? And if it’s no better than that, shan’t we be obliged to admit that matter has a sort of priority over mind? For instance, if all minds suddenly ceased to exist in the world, the world would go on quite happily, with white ants or octopuses or something occupying the position of nature’s darling instead of man. Or even if you cut out all sentient life, there would be an interesting struggle to see which weeds overran which. But if you imagine all matter suddenly ceasing to exist at this minute, what picture can we form, apart from our theological pre-possessions, about what the world would be like? I shouldn’t be able to finish off this conference; I should be in a worse position than a deaf man talking to dumb men; I shouldn’t even be able to make faces at you. And, of course, there would be even more serious consequences than that. A world of blanks, moving about in a blank world that is the only picture we can form to ourselves with our present perhaps limited powers of imagination. Mind seems to depend on matter so much; matter to depend on mind so little.

Well, if you think a little deeper, you will see that that argument really tells in exactly the opposite direction. In so far as matter is important to the existence of mind, whereas mind is not important to the existence of matter, in that proportion we are emboldened to say that mind must, in the ultimate constitution of things, have a higher value and importance than matter has. For you can conceive of matter as existing for the sake of mind, whereas you cannot possibly think of mind as existing for the sake of matter. Take those twirligigs in our brains, which are the concomitants, the material coefficient, of our thought. It is possible to suppose that in some way those twirligigs are meant to pave the way for our thoughts, to facilitate our thoughts. Whereas it would be plain nonsense to suppose that our thoughts facilitate, or pave the way for, those twirligigs. The waggling of my tongue and the twitching of your ears, do subserve an end, though it may not be a very important end, by making it possible for me to transfer my thoughts to your intelligence. But it would be ridiculous to imagine that my thoughts exist for the purpose of making my tongue waggle, or your ears twitch. That which exists for the sake of something else must have less value, in the ultimate nature of things, than that for the sake of which it exists. Pills exist for the sake of health, not health for the sake of pills; which means that health is a more important thing than pills, and so on. And therefore, just in proportion as mind is useless to matter, in that proportion it claims to be a more worth-while thing than matter. So the materialist’s boomerang has come back and hit him in the face.

And there is, of course, another very simple and obvious consideration which asserts the priority of mind over matter; I mean the fact that whereas matter can only be the object of thought, mind can be its object as well as its subject. The mind of man, unlike brute matter, unlike even (unless we are strangely deceived) the consciousness of other sentient creatures, can turn back upon itself and become self-conscious, become aware of itself as thinking. That which can thus fulfil a double role in the scheme of existence must surely have a greater fullness of life and of meaning than that which is confined to a single role.

All that, perhaps, may help to allay a scruple which we are apt to get when we hear the scholastic proofs of the existence of God set out. It occurs to us, I mean, to wonder whether the God whose existence philosophy proves is not a kind of abstraction, instead of being a living Person. The proof from order, to be sure, does introduce us to the thought of a Mind by which this order was planned. But when we are told of a Necessary Being, presupposed by all the contingent beings around us, or of a Best which is implied by our better, we are tempted to think of that reality as if it were neuter, as if we ought to talk about It, not about Him. But if mind has this priority over matter in the order of being, then there is no question that the ultimate reality must belong to this superior category of Mind, must be, like ourselves, although not with the limitations which the word implies in ourselves, a Person.

There, perhaps, you will expect my meditation to come to an end; you will suppose that I have exhausted all I am capable of saying about mind and matter. But if so, you’ve forgotten something. Anybody who is in the habit of trying to do cross-words will be familiar with the irritating experience of puzzling for half an hour or so over a clue that just says “order,” or “object,” thinking it is a noun, and then suddenly realizing that all the time it was meant to be a verb. In the same way, I told you I was going to give you a meditation on “mind” and “matter”; and I shouldn’t have fulfilled my commission if I didn’t point out to you that mind and matter aren’t necessarily nouns; they can also be verbs. It’s a curious thing, you know, because the English language is not generally supposed to be a good one for expressing philosophical thoughts. And yet as far as I know English is the only language which turns mind into a verb and matter into a verb. And more than that, although both usages are little better than slang, I think they have a delicate exactness of meaning. Mattering is really connected with what we mean by matter, and minding is really connected with what we mean by mind.

You won’t need any profound analysis of what the two verbs do mean. If you are accepting an invitation to dinner, but are anxious to go on to a meeting or a concert or something at nine, you end up your note, “I hope it won’t matter if I go just before nine,” or “I hope you won’t mind if I go just before nine.” The sense is, in either case, I hope there is no objection to my going before nine. But we have these two colloquial ways of expressing the same idea, and we give a slightly different twist to the sentiment according as we choose one or the other. “When we say, “I hope it won’t matter,” we hope that it will not transgress against the code of politeness in general. When we say, “I hope you won’t mind,” we hope it is not the kind of action which will tread on the corns of that particular person. It is only things, you see, which matter; it is only persons who mind.

Now, in the exchanges of everyday life, I think it will always be found that when we say, “It doesn’t matter,” we always mean, “I shan’t mind,” or “Somebody or other won’t mind.” The latter formula is a more exact definition of our thought. If you say, “It doesn’t matter whether I get through Pass Mods at the end of this term,” you mean either mean, “I don’t mind,” or “The dons won’t mind,” or “My people won’t mind.” If you say, “It doesn’t matter whether I go to Gloucester via Swindon or via Kingham,” you mean either that the journey takes as long in either case, so you don’t mind, or that your ticket is available for either route, and the shareholders of the G.W.R., who are enriched in either case, don’t mind. Mattering, in the ordinary affairs of life, is always related to somebody’s convenience; it is always, in the long run, a person you are thinking of, a person who minds.

But you can use the verb “to matter” in what would appear to be an absolute, not a relative sense. For instance, somebody may ask you, “Do you think it really matters, if I get drunk?” Well, of course, he may simply mean, “Will the dean mind, if he finds me breaking lamps?” Or he may simply mean, “Would you say from your experience that I shall mind much if I have a hangover next morning?” But the presumption on which you answer his question is a perfectly different one. You presume him to mean, “Is there some permanent moral law which will be violated, some equilibrium in the nature of things (not merely in my own mind) which will be disturbed, if I get drunk?” For once, it seems, we have got away from the personal reference; there are things which really matter in themselves, independently of whether somebody minds or not. If we say that it matters a great deal when Hitler starts persecuting the Jews, we don’t simply mean that the Jews mind; of course they mind. And we don’t simply mean that the News Chronicle minds, because the News Chronicle is not our ultimate test of human values. We mean that there is some order of justice external to himself which Hitler is violating. The thing matters in itself.

But, when you come to think of it, can a thing matter in itself? That is where you come up against a fresh argument for the existence of God; the argument from conscience. I call it a fresh argument, because it is not explicitly stated among the five scholastic proofs; though, of course, you can say, if you like, that it is only a particular development of the argument from degrees of being. If you put it in its crude form, the argument from conscience runs, I suppose, like this: “I find, in my conscience, a law telling me to do this and that, forbidding me to do this and that; there is no law without a law-giver; hence a supreme Law-giver must exist, whom we call God.” But the form in which I should prefer to put it, for the purposes of this meditation, is the question, “Can anything matter, unless there is Somebody who minds?”

You see, the difficulty is not really confined to the moral order. How can there be any absolute Truth, unless it be the Truth which is in God? How can there be any such thing as beauty, with a power of its own to compel our homage, unless it be a reflection of the Beauty which is in God? But it is in the moral order that we recognize the difficulty most, because the moral order affects every decision of our wills. How can I rest content with saying that loving my neighbour, or following die path of duty, or respecting my own body, is something which matters, if that is all the account that can be given of it? It would mean that I, a person, am being ordered about and tyrannized over by a thing, my conscience. And that thing, my conscience, is a part of myself. Or, if you prefer to talk about duty instead of conscience, you are worse off still; I, a concrete person, am being ordered about by a thing which is an abstraction. Don’t let us fall into the error of saying that I don’t obey my conscience, but the general conscience of humanity. That is what these modern people are always trying to do; I got a letter only the other day from somebody who wanted me to sign a letter protesting against the persecution of the Jews “before the conscience of civilization.” But civilization is an abstraction, and it hasn’t got a conscience. What they mean is, a collection of consciences belonging to a collection of civilized people; just as when they talk about the universal mind they only mean a collection of individual minds. But I don’t want to appeal to my own conscience or to anybody else’s conscience; I want to appeal to Somebody who minds, and has a right to mind, whenever the moral law is infringed; and he who minds must be a Person. Short of that, I cannot make sense of the proposition that anything matters. I cannot see how any mere thing has the right to abridge the liberties of myself, who am a person.

That is the argument from conscience as I see it; not, I’m afraid, put to you with due forms of philosophical discussion. Of course, in the very last analysis, the thing is not as simple as all that. I mean, it would be easy for somebody to pose me with the difficulty: “Do you mean sin only matters because God happens to mind? That murder, for example, is not something wrong in itself, and God, if he had preferred it that way, might just as well have commanded, ‘Thou shalt commit murder’, as the other way round?” To that I suppose I should reply, that in the last mysterious analysis “it matters” and “he minds” are, in God, the same thing. Things aren’t good just because God wills them, nor does God will things just because they are good. Goodness is his own Nature, that is, himself. But if there were no he, if there were only an, it, to dictate commands to free moral beings like ourselves, could we reconcile ourselves to the indignity of it? I know I couldn’t.

Originally printed in: “In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences”

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Author: Ruminator

Roman Catholic priest of the Ordinariate. Selections or essays from others, with or without comment, is not necessarily an endorsement.

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