Are We Intelligent Matter or Incarnate Spirit?

One of the most confounding philosophical questions involves our understanding of who we really are. Are we intelligent matter – stuff that got smart – or are we incarnate spirit – smarts that grew stuff around it? This question is inherent in the very nature of our experience of being human. We have bodies and we have the experience of consciousness – mind and matter, body and soul. Which one is more us, which came first, and which is really running the show?

The great religious traditions of the west have tended towards the outlook that we are spiritual beings who became flesh. First there was God, pure spirit and from God came us. Our more recent scientific understanding of reality has lead many to believe that we are matter that evolved into life and intelligence. Now, of course, there are always those who land somewhere in between these extremes – probably most people reading this blog for instance – still this is the divide that has generally separated science from religion and idealists from materialists.

If, in fact, we are essentially spirit that has taken form it would mean that in some significant way human beings are separate from the universe. We have some source of intelligence and will that is free from the rest of nature, that acts in nature while maintaining a foothold in some transcendent outside reference point. In this view, the core of our being stands apart from and above the laws of nature and we are therefore uniquely autonomous and responsible as the source of our own action in the universe.

If, on the other hand, we are a phenomenal product of complex interactions of matter, then there is a different set of implications to contend with. In this case we are an outgrowth of nature and her natural laws. Our actions and thoughts are not sourced from some outside reference point they are a necessary consequence of an intricate chain of cause and effect. Our actions are the result of natural interactions in the same way that the movement of a tree blowing in the wind is the result of the laws of force, energy and friction. And our concept of ourselves as autonomous, willful and responsible beings would need to be re-examined.

 In 1825 Samuel Taylor Coleridge published “Aids to Reflection” and put forth a combined view. Most of us know Coleridge as the English Romantic poet and author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We may not be aware that he was also an important English theologian – a Unitarian minister who had significantly influence the New England Transcendentalist movement in America.

Coleridge – in what was perhaps a misreading of Immanuel Kant – identified two distinctly different kinds of consciousness or knowing. Coleridge refers to one of these ways of knowing as ‘understanding.’ This he described as “an abstraction which the human mind forms by reflecting on its own thoughts and forms of thinking.” This knowing is a natural product of the process of mind, it is limited by and bound up in language and requires no existent “self” to enact it.

The other form of knowing Coleridge refers to as ‘reason.’ He describes this as  a direct product of the reasoning faculty. It is an “accident” of reason he says, meaning that it is not an understanding that is constructed through the lawful interaction of the thought process, but rather a direct recognition of truth that is compulsively self authenticating. This implies that there is some part of us that simply knows the truth. Coleridge talks about this knowing faculty in terms of our experience of conscience. Ralph Waldo Emerson a decade or so later would pick up this idea and speak about it as intuition. Emerson identified the source of this knowing as “the Over-Soul.”

The question of who we are – intelligent matter or incarnate spirit – lies at the heart of what it means to be human and as I continue to write about what it means to know and think I want to keep the question open.