Idealism,  Physicalism

Things and Stuff and Dirt and Heaven

I have been thinking about things lately. Things that you can touch–physical objects.

Most people in the world work with their hands. They make things, fry things, cut things, pick and sell things. And pretty much all people like things. We pick flowers, brew coffee, clean things, and display things so others can see them. 

A century ago in the west things were less important than ideas. Ideas were like magic – they changed everything, at least the way we understood everything. An idea could permeate every part of existence. A think was more valuable than a thing. Much of my own life has been focused on ideas–thoughts, imaginings, beliefs–or feelings, feelings that can be expressed in blues licks.

In our century physicalism is an increasingly popular doctrine. It insists that things are all there are. Some are committed to the idea that there are no medium sized things like tables; only really tiny things from which everything is arranged table-wise or clock-wise. 
The physicalist idea has appeal. It is apparently simple. Stuff: that’s all there is. There are no mysterious items plaguing our ontology: no abstracta clogging up the place.

And it means that the most important things in life are material things, they are things like food, things we make, things we buy. They are metal or wooden or plastic. They are old or new, worn or shiney.

If physicalism is true then senses are the most important source of input. We should linger at every taste, enjoy every touch and keep focused on our environment. Only then will life be full, full of things. We should play in the dirt, pick up worms, and engineer the world. If it’s all there is, then we should look after it. 

Christianity, on the other hand, is often overly associated with ideas to the expense of the physical. And, to be fair to physicalism, it too is ideaish, but insists that ideas are only possible given their physical base – brains. But Christianity is concerned with physical things as well as thees and thous. Don’t get me wrong, Christianity is very ideaish. After all, we are saved by grace through faith, mental type things, and not works of our hands. And worship of God follows the discovery of the truth of God in his word. But we human beings are fundamentally creaturely (Gen 1). We are like the animals. We are made from the dirt and to the dirt we return. We are no mere soul trapped in a body waiting for a perfect existence devoid of any material. 
We are not mere dirt either. We are the result of an idea. God thought about us, foreknew us, imagined us. We are the result of a divine dream not a cosmic atom accident. We are creaturely, yes, but God picked us out to be like him and he is not material. We are thingish and thinkish. As Gilbert Meilaender puts it, we are neither beasts nor gods.

Somehow, we live beyond our physical deaths; we who believe in Christ will be re-embodied in heavenly, glorified bodies. We outlive our bodies. They waste away, but whatever it is that God dreamed up lives on.

We shouldn’t necessarily think of outliving our bodies as outliving the physical realm. Perhaps C.S Lewis was right: the new earth will be more physical than this one. Perhaps God is far more of a physicalist than those who want God off the existential register.

“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato:
bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” Digory. 

A while ago I either had an idea about matter or someone else did and I wrote it on a card. Apologies if you recognize this as your material (let me know and I will cite you appropriately). Anyway, here is what I wrote:

Matter, at creation, was left unfilled. At the eschaton it will be full.

[Perhaps I should pause at this point with some reflection upon what my former self took to be a cool idea. Quite what I meant by “full” and “unfull” matter is not clear to me now. In retrospect, I don’t really know what this could mean. Does it mean atoms are bigger or closer together? It seems to me now that any change in a small area will mean a change to the whole thing. Anyway, on on…]

In Eden matter is “middle-matter,” [again, what this could be is mysterious to me now] it is dependent and corruptible and good. At the fall matter is left vulnerable by sin, outside the garden of protection. God judges the earth and involves matter in outpouring of wrath at the flood. The human body is splintered, disunited due to sin and racial strife ensues. Sexuality becomes debased. These defects are restrained by covenantal relationship with God and one another in marriage and community. Christ takes on corruptible matter in a human body. He is subject to strife, stress, immeasurable pain yet he is without sin. At the crucifixion Christ takes “middle-matter” to the grave and transforms it. Christ is resurrected and “fills up” matter. His matter is so full that “middle-matter” cannot hold him [I got this idea from Michael Lloyd who said that Jesus’ post-resurrection ability to appear suddenly and move through walls was not on account of his ghostliness, but because his glorified body made all other material things ghostlike in comparison]. The church becomes the body of Christ indwelled by his Spirit. Our material bodies are not yet filled up, but the hope of the resurrection is for this kind of material existence. In our final resurrection we are glorified and made like Christ not only morally, but materially. We become re-materialized, more real, more physical than before. 

I am not sure I agree with my former self/person who said this. For one thing, I don’t know that there is anything meaningful about material things begin more or less material. What would that mean? Perhaps molecules are somehow fatter or denser. But, as I said, to make them that way would be to alter laws of nature. A change to any part of creation of this kind would require a different universe.

Still, the material from which a glorified body is made is surely incorruptible. This must require some alteration, but perhaps only an alteration in its ability to endure. Perhaps there is no reason why matter as it is could be made enduring by God without making it entirely different.

On the other hand, our bodies work in reaction to our environment – cells die, skin sheds, pancreases replace themselves and so on. What must be the case is that new bodies (or “glorified” bodies) must be unable to die. But if they are made of the same stuff and nature operates according to the same laws then what prevents their death? Moreover, our glorified bodies are supposed to be the same bodies as we have now. This cannot mean that each cell is the same since, as we just saw, most of what is now my body at age blardy blar is not the same as it was at age 4. Both my present body and my age 4 body are, however, plausibly my body. Something must ground the identity of my body apart from its temporal parts otherwise to assemble my entire body again as a glorified body would be to assemble vast amounts of cells that have, in my life, been part of my pancreas. Furthermore by the time of resurrection day some or all those parts may not even exist. So what is it that will be my body, the same body I have now? And what will make it a glorified body, something that exceeds its present corruptible state?

The first question, as we have seen, is tricky since we are prone to think of bodies in terms of parts. And it gets us into questions of identity. It is just as tricky to work out some condition that makes the persistence of my identity through time possible from age 4 to my present age as it is to work out how my decayed/burned/eaten body will be re-made and be the same at the resurrection.

Some suggest that all one needs is a causal connection between bodies. My body now is causally connected with my 4 year old body. The same is true of my resurrection body. There will be a causal relationship between the two.  What this could look like may be hard to imagine, but the principle is not entirely implausible. If the parts of my body that are my future dead body are taken up into a new body persistence conditions obtain.

Trenton Merricks argues that there is good reason to suppose that our bodies are radically different yet the same, namely the apparently vast change from the body of a 4 year old and the body of an adult. If such a change is is observable the idea of a vast change between the non-gloried body and the glorified body is much more plausible. Merricks concludes that there are occasions, the gap between death and resurrection being one, when there are no persistence conditions; there is just a jump.

However, for matter to have greater, or maximal, endurance (glorified bodies endure eternally) there must be some changes to the laws of nature. A new earth with not require the nutrients from death that our earth requires. Does a glorified body replace its cells in the same way our present bodies do? If so, how does this count as being incorruptible? Perhaps no matter decays, cells of all kinds are incorruptible. We will all survive falling from buildings, being hit by cars and eating cyanide and there will be no dent in the sidewalk or car and the cyanide will be undigested or ineffective. Our cells will not be subject to many of the laws which now bind us. Once one begins to imagine the eternal state in physical terms one has to adjust so much of what we take for granted in our present state. It becomes a little hard to imagine.

However, apparent lack of knowledge in this area should not prevent the saint’s hope in a future, eternal and incorruptible state. Scripture indicates that the exact nature of the eternal state is beyond our present comprehension: “As it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'” (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 64:4). Such a condition is inconceivable, but this shouldn’t be take to mean impossible. The Greek means something akin to “out of reach for a human mind” which should entail strict inconceivability since although we might not be able to imagine indestructible physical things there is no contradiction produced by believing in such a thing.
A good book on Physicalism is Physicalism by Stoljer. Ideas about real and less real a la Lewis are found particularly in The Last Battle and Til We Have Faces. Trenton Merricks proposes his view in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.