Mind and Matter

In Book III of On the Soul, Aristotle argues that the intellect does not have a bodily organ:

Therefore, since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none. It was a good idea to call the soul ‘the place of forms’, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not actually.
Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before, as e.g. in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily immediately after, or in the case of a bright colour or a powerful odour we cannot see or smell, but in the case of mind thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it.

There are two arguments here, one from the fact that the mind can understand at all, and the other from the effect of thinking about highly intelligible things.

St. Thomas explains the first argument:

The following argument may make this point clear. Anything that is in potency with respect to an object, and able to receive it into itself, is, as such, without that object; thus the pupil of the eye, being potential to colours and able to receive them, is itself colourless. But our intellect is so related to the objects it understands that it is in potency with respect to them, and capable of being affected by them (as sense is related to sensible objects). Therefore it must itself lack all those things which of its nature it understands. Since then it naturally understands all sensible and bodily things, it must be lacking in every bodily nature; just as the sense of sight, being able to know colour, lacks all colour. If sight itself had any particular colour, this colour would prevent it from seeing other colours, just as the tongue of a feverish man, being coated with a bitter moisture, cannot taste anything sweet. In the same way then, if the intellect were restricted to any particular nature, this connatural restriction would prevent it from knowing other natures. Hence he says: ‘What appeared inwardly would prevent and impede’ (its knowledge of) ‘what was without’; i.e. it would get in the way of the intellect, and veil it so to say, and prevent it from inspecting other things. He calls ‘the inwardly appearing’ whatever might be supposed to be intrinsic and co-natural to the intellect and which, so long as it ‘appeared’ therein would necessarily prevent the understanding of anything else; rather as we might say that the bitter moisture was an ‘inwardly appearing’ factor in a fevered tongue.

This is similar to St. Thomas’s suggestion elsewhere that matter and understanding are intrinsically opposed to one another. I cautioned the reader there about taking such an argument as definitive too quickly, and I would do the same here. Consider the argument about sensation: it is true enough that the pupil isn’t colored, and that perception of temperature is relative to the temperature of the organ of touch, or some aspects of it, which suggests that heat in the organ impedes the sensation of heat. On the other hand, the optic nerve and the visual cortex are arguably even more necessary to the sense of sight than the pupil, and they most certainly are not colorless. Taking this into consideration, the facts about the pupil, and the way touch functions, and so on, seem like facts that should be taken into consideration, but do not even come to close to establishing as a fact that the intellect does not have an organ.

Likewise, with the second argument, Aristotle is certainly pointing to a difference between the intellect and the senses, even if this argument might need qualification, since one does tire even of thinking. But saying that the intellect is not merely another sense is one thing, and saying that it does not have an organ at all is another.

We previously considered Sean Collins’s discussion Aristotle and the history of science. Following on one of the passages quoted in the linked post, Collins continues:

I said above that Aristotle thinks somewhat Platonically “despite himself.” He himself is very remarkably aware that matter will make a difference in the account of things, even if the extent of the difference remains as yet unknown. And Aristotle makes, in this connection, a distinction which is well known to the scholastic tradition, but not equally well understood: that, namely, between the “logical” consideration of a question, and the “physical” consideration of it. Why make that distinction? Its basis lies in the discovery that matter is a genuine principle. For, on the one hand, the mind and its act are immaterial; but the things to be known in the physical world are material. It becomes necessary, therefore, for the mind to “go out of itself,” as it were, in the effort to know things. This is precisely what gives rise to what is called the “order of concretion.”

But how much “going out of itself” will be necessary, or precisely how that is to be done, is not something that can be known without experience — the experience, as it turns out, not merely of an individual but of an entire tradition of thought. Here I am speaking of history, and history has, indeed, everything to do with what I am talking about. Aristotle’s disciples are not always as perspicacious as their master was. Some of them suppose that they should follow the master blindly in the supposition that history has no significant bearing on the “disciplines.” That supposition amounts, at least implicitly, to a still deeper assumption: the assumption, namely, that the materiality of human nature, and of the cosmos, is not so significant as to warrant a suspicion that historical time is implicated in the material essence of things. Aristotle did not think of time as essentially historical in the sense I am speaking of here. The discovery that it was essentially historical was not yet attainable.

I would argue that Sean Collins should consider how similar considerations would apply to his remark that “the mind and its act are immaterial.” Perhaps we know in a general way that sensation is more immaterial than growth, but we do not think that sensation therefore does not involve an organ. How confident should one be that the mind does not use an organ based on such general considerations? Just as there is a difference between the “logical” consideration of time and motion and their “physical” consideration, so there might be a similar difference between two kinds of consideration of the mind.

Elsewhere, Collins criticizes a certain kind of criticism of science:

We do encounter the atomists, who argue to a certain complexity in material things. Most of our sophomore year’s natural science is taken up with them. But what do we do with them? The only atomists we read are the early ones, who are only just beginning to discover evidence for atoms. The evidence they possess for atoms is still weak enough so that we often think we can take refuge in general statements about the hypothetical nature of modern science. In other words, without much consideration, we are tempted to write modern science off, so that we can get back to this thing we call philosophy.

Some may find that description a little stark, but at any rate, right here at the start, I want to note parenthetically that such a dismissal would be far less likely if we did not often confuse experimental science with the most common philosophical account of contemporary science. That most common philosophical account is based largely on the very early and incomplete developments of science, along with an offshoot of Humean philosophy which came into vogue mainly through Ernst Mach. But if we look at contemporary science as it really is today, and take care to set aside accidental associations it has with various dubious philosophies, we find a completely wonderful and astonishing growth of understanding of the physical structure not only of material substances, but of the entire cosmos. And so while some of us discuss at the lunch table whether the hypothesis of atoms is viable, physicists and engineers around the world make nanotubes and other lovely little structures, even machines, out of actual atoms of various elements such as carbon.

And likewise during such discussions, neuroscientists discuss which parts of the brain are responsible for abstract thought.

When we discussed the mixing of wine and water, we noted how many difficulties could arise when you consider a process in detail, which you might not notice simply with a general consideration. The same thing will certainly happen in the consideration of how the mind works. For example, how am I choosing these words as I type? I do not have the time to consider a vast list of alternatives for each word, even though there would frequently be several possibilities, and sometimes I do think of more than one. Other times I go back and change a word or two, or more. But most of the words are coming to me as though by magic, without any conscious thought. Where is this coming from?

The selection of these words is almost certainly being done by a part of my brain. A sign of this is that those with transcortical motor aphasia have great difficulty selecting words, but do not have a problem with understanding.

This is only one small element of a vast interconnected process which is involved in understanding, thinking, and speaking. And precisely because there is a very complex process here which is not completely understood, the statement, “well, these elements are organic, but there is also some non-organic element involved,” cannot be proved to be false in a scientific manner, at least at this time. But it also cannot be proved to be true, and if it did turn out to be true, there would have to be concrete relationships between that element and all the other elements. What would be the contribution of the immaterial element? What would happen if it were lacking, or if that question does not make sense, because it cannot be lacking, why can it not be lacking?

 

Not All Things are Water

The basic point of the post on Thales was that material things are composed of one or more material elements. The ancient materialists were accustomed not only to maintain this position, but also to assert that it also followed that there was nothing but those elements. Thus Democritus is said to have said,

By convention, sweet; by convention, bitter; by convention, hot; by convention,
cold; by convention, color; but in reality, atoms and void.

One could say that this is an example of the attitude of “this or nothing.” If everything is made of atoms, then either a thing is atoms, or it is nothing.

The correct answer here is not to say “this or that,” but “this and that,” that is, that things made of atoms are in some way atoms, but they are also things made of them, and the things made of them are not merely atoms.

 

Truth in the Senses

Discussing Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Edward Feser says:

Take a stock example of reductive scientific explanation like the reduction of sound to compression waves, color to surface reflectance properties, or heat and cold to molecular motion.  The way these explanations work is by treating the appearance that sound, color, heat and cold present to us in conscious experience as mere appearance, as a projection of the mind that corresponds to nothing in objective, mind-independent reality.  What common sense understands by color, sound, heat and cold — the way red looks, the way a musical note sounds, the way a hot stove feels, and so forth — is held to have no objective reality, any more than the redness a person unknowingly wearing red-tinted contact lenses thinks he sees in all the objects around him really exists in those objects.  Instead, color is for scientific purposes essentially redefined by the method in terms of the surface reflectance properties that cause in us the subjective appearance of color; sound redefined in terms of the compression waves that cause in us the subjective appearance of sound; and heat and cold redefined in terms of the molecular motion that causes in us the subjective appearance of heat and cold.

Thus, as common sense understands color, sound, heat and cold, etc., the reductive method ends up treating the world as essentially colorless, soundless, devoid of temperature, etc.  What the method calls “color,” “sound,” “heat” and “cold” is in fact something different from what the man on the street thinks of when he hears these terms.  The “red” that the method says exists in the material world is just the tendency of an object to absorb certain wavelengths of light and to reflect others.  The “red” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object itself at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  The “heat” that the method says really exists in the material world is just the motion of molecules.  The “heat” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  And so forth.

Now, Nagel’s point is not that there is something wrong per se with overthrowing common sense in this way.  It is rather that whatever value this method has, it cannot coherently be applied to the explanation of conscious experience itself.  If the reductive method involves ignoring the appearances of a thing and redefining the thing in terms of something other than the appearances, then since our conscious experience of the world just is the way the world appears to us, to ignore the appearances is in this case just to ignore the very phenomenon to be explained rather than to explain it.  Consciousness is for this reason necessarily and uniquely resistant to explanation via the same method scientific reductionism applies to everything else.  For the application of the method in this case, writes Nagel, “does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”  To treat the appearances as essentially “subjective” or mind-dependent is precisely to make them incapable of explanation in entirely “objective” or mind-independent terms.

Feser is quite right that consciousness cannot be explained in such a way even in principle. I have touched on this point in a previous post. This is why eliminative materialists such as Daniel Dennett effectively deny the existence of consciousness: if the only things that exist are material things as described by modern science, then consciousness cannot even exist, because it cannot possibly be described in that terminology. John Searle, in a reply to Dennett, says:

In spite of its strident tone, I am grateful for Daniel Dennett’s response to my review because it enables me to make the differences between us crystal clear. I think we all really have conscious states. To remind everyone of this fact I asked my readers to perform the small experiment of pinching the left forearm with the right hand to produce a small pain. The pain has a certain sort of qualitative feeling to it, and such qualitative feelings are typical of the various sorts of conscious events that form the content of our waking and dreaming lives. To make explicit the differences between conscious events and, for example, mountains and molecules, I said consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology. By that I mean that conscious states only exist when experienced by a subject and they exist only from the first-person point of view of that subject.

Such events are the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain. In my account of consciousness I start with the data; Dennett denies the existence of the data. To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies.

I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

Dennett is obviously wrong about consciousness. But what about color, sound, heat, and cold? Is it true that “reductive scientific explanation” holds that these things are a “mere appearance” that “correspond to nothing in objective, mind-independent reality?”

Feser may be quite honest personally in his description of what he considers to be two opposing views. But it seems to me that he is inheriting this description from a long tradition of putting Aristotle and common sense, on the one hand, into an unnecessary opposition with modern scientific views on the other. I think that this tradition is in essence wishful thinking: this tradition came to be historically through the efforts of people who wished for disagreement between Aristotle and modern science.

I touched on this wish in an earlier post when I said that John Locke’s understanding of secondary qualities “is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case.” The early moderns did differ from Aristotle regarding the purpose of the sciences, as I pointed out here in the case of Francis Bacon. Having a different purpose requires employing different means. Consequently it was favorable for their purposes to emphasize their disagreements with the philosophy of Aristotle, regardless of how much agreement or disagreement existed in reality when the positions themselves are properly understood. If people could be persuaded to abandon Aristotelian thought and focus on the new science, the purposes of the new science would be more easily obtained.

Let us ask the question directly: if color for example consists in the reflectance properties of a surface, does this mean that colors as we see them are “mere appearances” that have no objective reality? Elsewhere, Feser says that this view implies that “Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.”

The scientist can presumably reply in this way: Color consists in surface reflectance properties. These properties are objective properties of physical objects in the world. So color is an objective property of physical objects in the world.

Feser’s response can be found in the original quotation above:

What common sense understands by color, sound, heat and cold — the way red looks, the way a musical note sounds, the way a hot stove feels, and so forth — is held to have no objective reality, any more than the redness a person unknowingly wearing red-tinted contact lenses thinks he sees in all the objects around him really exists in those objects.  Instead, color is for scientific purposes essentially redefined by the method in terms of the surface reflectance properties that cause in us the subjective appearance of color; sound redefined in terms of the compression waves that cause in us the subjective appearance of sound; and heat and cold redefined in terms of the molecular motion that causes in us the subjective appearance of heat and cold.

Of course, the scientist would say that when a person wears red tinted contact lenses, the physical objects around him do not have the properties that constitute red, and consequently it is true that the objects are not objectively red. But other objects like red apples and the like do have those properties, and so they are objectively red. The two cases are not the same. Feser is replying by saying that whether he wants to or not, the scientist is denying the existence of red as we know it.

According to Feser, “what common sense understands by color” is something like “the way red looks,” and it is this to which, according to him, the scientist is denying objective existence. This is to say, if it true that red bodies have a certain way of reflecting light, and this fact is all there is in the body which explains why red bodies look red, Feser would say that this means that “the body is red” is a false statement. This is necessary for his position to be true: “the body is red” has to be actually false in the sense that we normally understand it, since he made the comparison with red tinted glasses, where in fact it is false that the body is red.

What do we mean when we say that something is red? We don’t just mean that it looks a certain way, because we know that sometimes things appear to be a color which they are not, as in the case of the tinted glasses. We don’t mean that it looks some way; we mean that it is that way. Take something that looks red. If we say that it is actually red, we mean that it actually is the way it looks.

All this is true, but it causes Feser to fall into error. “This is actually red” no more describes the nature of red than “this looks red” does. We know how red things look, because we experience it directly. But this experience is not a description. It is not something that can be true or false, so that we can say “surface reflectance is a false description of this experience.” It is a sensible experience, not a claim to truth or falsehood, and we consider sensible experiences accurate when they do not mislead us. Red tinted glasses do mislead us, and so we consider those experiences “false”, and say that the things are not really red. But even if color consists in surface reflectance properties, the experience of color never misled us. It never said, “This is not a reflectance property,” because it never said anything at all. It was not a statement but a sensation.

In order to determine whether something is actually red, we do not turn sensation into a description and check whether the thing matches that description. This is probably not even possible. We simply recognize that “this is actually red” when it looks red to a normal person in normal circumstances. And this is true regardless of what is present in the body that causes red things to look red to us, whether that is the properties of the surface or something else. Thus the scientist has no need to deny the objectivity of color, nor to deny his physical explanation of color.

Feser may actually have a different concern about objectivity, not merely whether statements about color are true or false. Are the distinctions in question natural distinctions, or are they essentially arbitrary from an objective point of view? Is the line between blue and green a natural one, or do our senses make that distinction in a basically arbitrary manner? Locke and others called certain qualities “secondary” because it seemed to them that the distinctions in question were basically arbitrary. We have good evidence that at least in some cases, they were right. An object feels hot or cold depending on the current condition of the one who feels it, without having to change from “being objectively hot” to “being objectively cold.” While the evidence is less conclusive in the case of color, something similar appears to be the case there. The line between different colors is in a different place for different people, as is most evidently the case in colorblind persons, and much more are the dividing lines in different places for different species of animal. This means that we have some reason to believe that green and blue things are objectively distinct, but that this objective distinction is much like the objective distinction between persons who are under six feet tall and persons who are over six feet tall. The distinction itself is objective, but the choice of distinction is basically arbitrary, if the thing is considered in itself.