Material is not the visible, Spiritual is not the invisible.

by David Fleischacker

There is a simple yet important distinction made by Lonergan regarding the meaning of the material and the spiritual.  I remember in Fr. Joseph Flanagan's class on INSIGHT at Boston College that he gave a definition of the spiritual which intrigued many of us. This definition was given long before we came to understand its meaning.  The spiritual, he said, is that which is "intrinsically independent of the empirical residue."  The material is that which is intrinsically dependent or limited by the empirical residue. Many of us however define the material and the spiritual in terms of the visible and invisible rather than the empirical residue.

Because of this common union of the visible and invisible with the material and spiritual, it helps to put the visible and invisible in their proper places and Lonergan develops a distinction which accomplishes this task. That distinction is between description and explanation.  Descriptive knowledge relates things to us, through our motor-sensory experiences. It is almost by definition visible or at least tied to the visible (or motor-sensible). Explanation in contrast relates things to things, via an abstractive process from images/symbols/phantasm.  This type of knowledge intentionally goes beyond our sense knowledge to grasp things independently of our senses.  The explanatory is literally not visible, hence it is invisible (not motor-sensible).

This distinction between the descriptive and the explanatory is important because Lonergan's definition of the material and the spiritual requires both a clear shift into the explanatory, and then a clear articulation of explanation in terms of cognitive theory and then metaphysics. In other words, cognitively, when one

  1. grasps the nature of explanatory insights and implicit definitions, and
  2. then how these insights abstract from experience patterned by the desire to grasp the nature or forms of things, and
  3. that in certain types of abstraction, a residue is left behind, left unexplained (=empirical residue)

…then one is prepared for the shift to to understand the meaning of the material in its cognitive elements. And cognitively, when one grasps that some forms and the modes of operation of these forms operate independently of this residue, then one is ready to grasp the meaning of spiritual.  

And in other words, metaphysically,  when one

  1. comes to understand potency, form, and act, and
  2. that potency provides a limitation to form, and
  3. that some types of potency include limitations in space and time, continuums, random divergences from ideal frequencies, inertia, and individuality

… then one is ready to understand matter metaphysically. And metaphysically, when one grasps that some forms have capacities not limited by space and time, by continuums, by random divergences from ideal frequencies, by inertia, or by individuality, then one is ready to understand the spiritual metaphysically.

After strenously exercising one's mind in INSIGHT (at least for most of us who are rather dull), and having shifted into a cognitive and metaphysical account of explanatory understanding and forms, material beings can be understood as those which are intrinsically conditioned by the empirical residue (prime matter in ancient language) and spiritual beings are those which are intrinsically independent of the empirical residue.

Once you understand these meanings of material and spiritual, you can then understand the title of this blog, and the same answer explains both clauses.

  • The "material is not the visible,"
    • Why? because material intelligible forms and the acts of these forms are known by explanatory understanding and judgement, not by descriptions of motor-sensory experience.
    • Hence, these material forms and acts of these forms are invisible.  
  • And likewise, the "spiritual is not the invisible"
    • Why? because material intelligible forms and the acts of these forms are known by explanatory understanding and judgement, not by descriptions of motor-sensory experience.
    • Hence, these material forms and acts of these forms are invisible yet not spiritual.

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