Suppose you were a conscious amino acid. The material world consists, for you, of fellow biochemicals, and you know too that you are made up of atoms, and that those atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. You go about your business, acting as an individual amino acid, sometimes joining into larger groups (proteins), and then separating out from them. You wander around your society of biochemicals, imagining that this is all there is.
And then one day, a nucleic acid comes to you and tells you that you are part of this larger entity, that your mind is not entirely your own, but that there is this thing out there, this “cell” of which you are a part, that comes in and influences your actions. All that you thought were your choices or merely random events is in fact run by this higher intelligence known as the “cell.” It is not that you don’t have choices — you can be in this or that part of the cell, you may attach yourself to a tRNA, to a protein, to a short polypeptide, etc. — but you are now informed that there is a greater purpose involved, that you are part of this larger cell, and that your actions help to keep this cell alive.
Now, from the point of view of the amino acid, the cell will seem, in relation to you, “immaterial.” It will make no sense from your material point of view. It will seem very strange indeed. You may believe in the cell, or not (and be an atheist). There will be discussions among your fellow biochemicals regarding the nature of the cell. Is it material? That is, if it even exists. The “cell” theory does seem to make a lot of things make more sense — but it is nonetheless troubling. If it is not material in the same sense as a biochemical, is it really material? From our more complex, emergent human perspective, the cell seems to be just as material as as its constituent biochemicals. While, on the other hand, our “mind” appears to be just as immaterial as the cell is to the biochemical.
Let me tell a short story of emergence.
In the beginning was pure information, or pure energy. Information is inform, yet gives form. It is the foundation of all things. (In the beginning (archae) was the word (logos).)
As the universe expanded and cooled, that pure energy crystallized out into quantum particle-waves. It became more material.
Some of those quantum particle-waves combined to form emergent atoms with greater complexity. These atoms were more material than their constituent particle-waves.
Some of those atoms combined to form chemicals (more material than atoms) — and some of those chemicals were able to interact in complex cycles to give rise to cells with emergent complexity. These cells were more material than their constituent chemicals.
Some cells were able to develop complex interactions such that multicellular organisms were able to emerge, giving rise to greater complexity and more complex interactions. These multicellular organisms were even more material than their constituent cells.
One species of animal evolved a highly complex brain with an emergent intelligence. This brain resulted in more complex social behaviors, the evolution of language, and the emergence of complex culture and religion. It was so complex that it was able to contemplate itself and the universe (thus, the universe became complex enough to become self-aware, to be able to contemplate itself). It seems that there will soon be 10 billion members of that species, with brains so complex that the minding function of that brain has given rise to the appearance of permanence (the same way that while each of the lower levels that constitute it are in fact always in flux, always in time, they nonetheless gain more appearance of permanency). This species has more time and more time experience, more material being, than do all the levels below it that constitute it (there is a nested hierarchy — a new Great Chain of Being). And that mind is much more material than the brain that gave rise to it.
Humans are not the end of the line. New levels of complexity have emerged in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. And there will be fewer examples of those more complex levels that emerge (the same way that there is more energy than quantum particle-waves, more particle-waves than atoms, more atoms than chemicals, more chemicals than cells, more cells than organisms, and more organisms than humans). The emergentist evolutionary world view thus gives you emergence of tue universe to God — who is the most complex, highest level of emergence, with the most time. Thus, God is also the most material.
This story derives from Darwinian evolutionary theory, combined with information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and fractal geometry, the theory of emergence, and self-organization theory. This combination is able to give rise to both ethics and God.