Matter and Mystery:
reconciling materialism and mysticism.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

There is a continuity, from the dust of interstellar space, to the burning of suns; from the self-origination of life, to the emergence of intelligence. All that exists is matter and energy, mysterious, infinitely complex, divine.

Region of starbirth in the nebula NGC 604, part of the M33 galaxy in Triangulum constellation. Hui Yang and NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, January 17, 1995.

What is materialism?

Philosophical materialism has nothing to do with materialism in the sense of consumerism or the desire to amass material possessions.

Philosophical materialism means simply the belief that everything that exists is matter. It is a form of monism - that is, it holds that all things are formed from the same kind of stuff. It contrasts with the other major type of monism - the belief that everything that exists is mind or idea or spirit - a position held by many forms of Buddhism, and by idealists such as Berkeley or Emerson.

But it is also distinct from dualism - the belief that things are made of two distinct and separate kinds of stuff: mind and matter. Dualism faces grave problems in explaining how mind and matter are linked, and also leaves mind to some extent "stranded" in an alien and inferior world of matter or appearances.

Science is by nature materialist: that is, it assumes that everything that happens can be explained in terms of the dynamics of matter and energy. Everything has a material explanation. If something cannot be explained, this doesn't mean that there are other realities besides those of matter and energy: it means simply that the explanation has not yet been found. Mysterious unidentified spiritual forces are no more an explanation than are aliens or gods.

Of course an open-minded science would never assert that we already know all forms of matter and energy. In fact modern science predicts several kinds of particles which have not yet been directly observed. Some theories of the origin of the universe predict an entire class of dark matter. Not only have we not seen any of this stuff yet: we don't even know what it might be made of.

In the same way an open-minded materialism would not deny the possibility of telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, psychic healing and so on. It would simply assert that, if these things are one day scientifically established, then they must have some kind of material basis. In other words, if they exist, they are forces or forms of matter which we do not yet understand.

Materialism does not claim that mind or spirit do not exist - it believes that they are among the many astonishing aspects of matter.

Whatever exists is matter. Nothing can exist unless it is material. Nothing can be perceived, nothing can exert any force or bring about any change in the real world, unless it has a material basis.

Matter is not base.

Many people still have a feeling that matter is somehow inferior or base, and that only mind is noble and refined. Many feel that if the mind, or life, or creation, are explained in terms of material processes, they are somehow devalued or debased, in the same way that Creationists feel insulted by the idea that we have evolved from apes.

This feeling is a remnant of Platonic, Gnostic, and Manichean traditions, all of which regarded matter and the life of the body as evil. Through Paul and Augustine and others, these ideas had a strong influence on Christianity and are still widespread today. They must be overcome if we are to feel fully at home in the universe, in nature and in our bodies.

There is nothing base about matter. Matter never ceases to astonish us in the complexity and variety of its properties. When we find a material explanation for something, we have not devalued it: we have enriched our understanding of matter, and discovered yet another of its inexhaustible properties.

There is a continuity, from the dust of interstellar space, to the burning of suns; from to the solidification of crystals, to the self- origination of life, and the emergence of consciousness and intelligence. All these phenomena, from the lowest to the highest, are inherent potentialities of matter. All can develop, and will develop in the right circumstances, given the properties of matter.

Some transitions are sudden: the phase shift from fluid to crystal; the emergence of the first self-replicating molecule. But these transitions are not mysterious inexplicable events requiring the hand of God to explain. They were from the beginning inherent in the properties of matter.

At no point in the progression can we insert a cut-off and say: this step is too abrupt. It cannot have occurred by chance, therefore here a deity had to intervene. At no point can we draw a clear line and say: on this side is life, on that side is dead matter. No matter is dead. All matter is brilliantly alive, ready to take on an infinity of new forms.

If we insist that mind is different from matter, then we are saying that we are not at home in our bodies or in the universe. We are different from the rest of nature. Since we clearly have more "mind" than other animals, it also means that we must be quite different from and superior to them.

Matter is infinitely mysterious.

Other people still hanker after an irreducible mystery in the universe. They feel that matter is too straightforward, too simple, to down-to-earth. They feel there must be an element of mind or spirit infusing the whole. Without that everything would be too mundane.

Yet if the universe were infused with mind or spirit, this would not make it more mysterious, but less. Mind and spirit are what we humans know most about, from the inside. We know far less about matter, because our very selves appear to us to be made, not of matter, but of mental stuff. A universe that was filled with mind, or a universe that was designed by a mind like ours, would be far less mysterious than the one we inhabit.

There is nothing more mysterious than matter itself, its raw existence and presence. Consider the photon. It is never emitted or recorded except as a particle, yet in between it often behaves as a wave. Physicists can write out the maths of quantum physics. But as Nobel-price winning physicist Richard Feynman once remarked, no scientist has any real understanding of quantum physics: anyone who claims to understand it has not really understood it.

We don't need to plumb the deep of quantum physics to see the mystery of matter. Consider the background image from the Hubble Space Telescope, a furnace of star creation in the galaxy M33. It resembles for all the world the illuminated clouds with which baroque painters used to surround images of Gods and angels. Yet this is not some mysterious beyond: this is the divine reality of our material universe.

Come down again to earth. Hold a pebble in your hand and feel its solidity. Why is it there at all? Why is there not simply nothing? Science, philosophy and religion cannot answer these questions - and they will never be able to answer them (see the self-existent cosmos).

Things simply exist. Their sheer existence is and always will be mysterious. And it is in that mystery that pantheists find divinity.


is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

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Scientific pantheism: index.
History of pantheism.
Basic principles of scientific pantheism.
The divine cosmos.
Join the World Pantheist Movement

Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: pan(at)(this domain)

© Paul Harrison 1996.