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?

 

Desire and The Good

A confusing thing about the meanings of one and many  is that the meaning of each seems to depend on the other. The reality behind this is that there is a back and forth process in which each is used to understand the other better. First we understand being, which is something one, although without the specific idea of unity. Then we understand distinction, which implies several things, again without the specific idea of “many.” Then we understand the one by contrast with things that are distinct. Finally we understand the many as a whole composed of ones as parts.

A similar thing happens with the meanings of “desire” and “good”. Thus St. Thomas defines the good in reference to desire:

I answer that, Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea; which is clear from the following argument. The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): “Goodness is what all desire.” Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (3, 4; 4, 1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present.

But he also seems to define desire in relation to the good:

I answer that, We must needs assert that in God there is love: because love is the first movement of the will and of every appetitive faculty. For since the acts of the will and of every appetitive faculty tend towards good and evil, as to their proper objects: and since good is essentially and especially the object of the will and the appetite, whereas evil is only the object secondarily and indirectly, as opposed to good; it follows that the acts of the will and appetite that regard good must naturally be prior to those that regard evil; thus, for instance, joy is prior to sorrow, love to hate: because what exists of itself is always prior to that which exists through another. Again, the more universal is naturally prior to what is less so. Hence the intellect is first directed to universal truth; and in the second place to particular and special truths. Now there are certain acts of the will and appetite that regard good under some special condition, as joy and delight regard good present and possessed; whereas desire and hope regard good not as yet possessed. Love, however, regards good universally, whether possessed or not. Hence love is naturally the first act of the will and appetite; for which reason all the other appetite movements presuppose love, as their root and origin. For nobody desires anything nor rejoices in anything, except as a good that is loved: nor is anything an object of hate except as opposed to the object of love. Similarly, it is clear that sorrow, and other things like to it, must be referred to love as to their first principle. Hence, in whomsoever there is will and appetite, there must also be love: since if the first is wanting, all that follows is also wanting. Now it has been shown that will is in God (19, 1), and hence we must attribute love to Him.

This seems circular. Desire is a tendency towards the good, while the good is something that is desirable.

The correct response is that here too we have a back and forth process where each thing makes the other understood better. The first thing in this order is desire, but for the moment without the specific idea of tendency towards the good. Taken in this way, it expresses a way of feeling, a sensible experience. It does not matter here whether we take desire in particular, or its principle, namely love, or its consequence, namely pleasure or joy, or their opposites, such as hate, aversion or sadness. In any case we wish to consider them in a very subjective way, as a way of feeling.

Taken in this way, we can consider them much like a kind of sensation. People sometimes ask how we know that pain is a property of the one who feels pain, rather than of the object that inflicts pain. It seems perfectly possible to say that “this knife is painful” could be just as much an objective fact about the knife, as the fact that the handle of the knife is brown. Of course, no one actually believes this. But the question is why they do not.

It would be easy to suppose that the experiences themselves, namely of seeing the knife and being cut by it, are self explanatory. Of course being cut by a knife is something that happens to me, and of course the color of the knife is a property of the knife.

I agree with the conclusion, naturally, but I do not agree with the reasoning. I do not think that we know this in virtue of the experiences themselves. I think we learn it, very quickly and without a need for conscious attention, from the contexts in which those experiences happen. As I said in the linked post on truth in the senses, sensations are not descriptions of a thing, and they do not make claims. Pain does not assert, “I do not belong to this painful thing”; it does not say anything. Nor does color assert, “I am a property of this body.” It does not say anything. And if we simply consider the sensations as such, we could not give a reason why pain could not be a property of the painful thing, nor why color could not be a property of ourselves rather than the thing. But the contexts in which we have these sensations teach us that color belongs to the colored object, and pain to ourselves, rather than to the painful thing.

Consider the case of sadness. It is easy enough to see that sadness is a property of ourselves, and not of an objectively sad fact. Part of the reason it is easy to see this is that we can be sad, and we can know that we are sad, without noticing any particular reason for being sad. In other words, it is the context of the experience that shows us that it is a property of ourselves.

Something similar is the case with love and desire. Insofar as they are feelings that can be experienced, they can be experienced without noticing any particular object. Katja Grace talks about this situation:

Sometimes I find myself longing for something, with little idea what it is.

This suggests that perceiving desire and perceiving which thing it is that is desired by the desire are separable mental actions.

In this state, I make guesses as to what I want. Am I thirsty? (I consider drinking some water and see if that feels appealing.) Do I want to have sex? (A brief fantasy informs me that sex would be good, but is not what I crave.) Do I want social comfort? (I open Facebook, maybe that has social comfort I could test with…)

If I do infer the desire in this way, I am still not directly reading it from my own mind. I am making educated guesses and testing them using my mind’s behavior.

In this way, it is possible to feel desire as a mere feeling, without defining it in reference to something good. And this kind of feeling is the origin of the idea of “desire,” but it is not yet sufficient.

We learn from experience that when we have desires, we tend to do things. And we notice that not all desires are the same, and that when we have similar desires, we end up doing similar things. And so from this we get the idea of the good as the end and final cause of our actions. We do similar things when we have similar desires, and what those things have in common is that they result in the same ends, even if they use different means. So the end is “why” and explains the choice of means.

In turn, this understanding of the end allows us to understand desire more precisely, now as an inclination towards the good.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

C.S. Lewis begins his essay on Bulverism:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

The person probably most known for making the first point, about sensation, is John Locke. He says in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,

First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: v.g. Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to insensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter, of that which was but one before; all which distinct masses, reckoned as so many distinct bodies, after division, make a certain number. These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities. To these might be added a third sort, which are allowed to be barely powers; though they are as much real qualities in the subject as those which I, to comply with the common way of speaking, call qualities, but for distinction, secondary qualities. For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay — by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before — by the same primary qualities, viz. the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

It is possible that this 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. Aristotle says in On the Soul:

If it is true that the movement, both the acting and the being acted upon, is to be found in that which is acted upon, both the sound and the hearing so far as it is actual must be found in that which has the faculty of hearing; for it is in the passive factor that the actuality of the active or motive factor is realized; that is why that which causes movement may be at rest. Now the actuality of that which can sound is just sound or sounding, and the actuality of that which can hear is hearing or hearkening; ‘sound’ and ‘hearing’ are both ambiguous. The same account applies to the other senses and their objects. For as the-acting-and-being-acted-upon is to be found in the passive, not in the active factor, so also the actuality of the sensible object and that of the sensitive subject are both realized in the latter. But while in some cases each aspect of the total actuality has a distinct name, e.g. sounding and hearkening, in some one or other is nameless, e.g. the actuality of sight is called seeing, but the actuality of colour has no name: the actuality of the faculty of taste is called tasting, but the actuality of flavour has no name. Since the actualities of the sensible object and of the sensitive faculty are one actuality in spite of the difference between their modes of being, actual hearing and actual sounding appear and disappear from existence at one and the same moment, and so actual savour and actual tasting, &c., while as potentialities one of them may exist without the other. The earlier students of nature were mistaken in their view that without sight there was no white or black, without taste no savour. This statement of theirs is partly true, partly false: ‘sense’ and ‘the sensible object’ are ambiguous terms, i.e. may denote either potentialities or actualities: the statement is true of the latter, false of the former. This ambiguity they wholly failed to notice.

Saying the sound and color are a “potentiality” when they are not being sensed, and actualized when they are being sensed, suggests very much the same thing as Locke when he says that sensible qualities are “such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us.”

However, by using the terms of “primary” and “secondary,” and saying that sensible qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but…”, Locke suggests that there is something especially unreal about qualities such as color and odor, as Lewis mentions in his opening paragraph. This at least is a mistake on Locke’s part, since he failed to notice that there is no huge distinction between the aspects of a body that he calls “primary” and the ones that he calls “secondary.” Just as the color of an object appears differently in different lighting and so on, so a body looks larger or smaller depending on where it is situated relative to me. Likewise an elliptical object appears to have a different shape depending on my point of view. In other words, if there is reason to think that color is “nothing but the ability to look colored,” then there is an equal reason to think that shape is “nothing but the power to appear shaped.”

And I would say that both of these are true in a certain way, and false in a certain way, just as Aristotle did about the existence of white and black. They are false, if they are taken to mean that “grass is green,” is a false statement, or that is a subjective one. It is a true statement, and an objective fact about grass. They are true, if they mean that what we know about greenness is basically what we know from sensing it, and that being green means having the possibility of being sensed in this way. And the like is equally true of shape, size, quantity, hardness, and the other aspects that Locke calls primary.

C.S. Lewis is using this as a comparison with a critical analysis of people’s thought processes. Just as analyzing the causality involved in sensation can lead someone to say that sensible things don’t have an objective existence, so analyzing people’s thought processes could lead someone to believe that nothing is true. Thus he continues:

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

If being “tainted” means having causes that are not completely correlated with truth, then the true answers to Lewis’s questions are that either all, or nearly all, thoughts are tainted, and no, this does not necessarily mean that they are false. Virtually all thoughts are tainted in this sense because human beings do not usually have only a single motive for things that they choose to do, and this includes the choice to believe certain things. This need not “invalidate” the thoughts because obviously it does not guarantee that the thoughts are false.

Lewis is correct that pointing out that someone’s opinions match his desires does not prove that his opinions are false. However, we saw earlier that a person’s claim is evidence for what is claimed. This will be affected, however, by a person’s motives. If a person is motivated mostly by reasons which make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is stronger evidence. And likewise, if he is motivated mostly by things which do not make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is weaker evidence. Consequently, if I point out that such motives are a strong factor in a person’s belief, this is not a waste of time, nor is it irrelevant. It is quite relevant, because it weakens the evidence present in his claim, and consequently it becomes more likely that the thing is actually false.

Lewis continues:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

Lewis is himself engaging in something very like Bulverism here, or at least he is attempting to get others to do so. In the first place, the very invention of the name “Bulverism” is such an attempt. It has a ridiculous sound, and the only contribution it makes to the discussion is to make it appear that someone is doing something ridiculous. This is part of Lewis’s plan to “crush” Bulverism, namely by making people dismiss it out of hand, just as he says that they dismiss his positions out of hand.

Of course, as I already stated, Bulverism as defined by Lewis is indeed a bad thing. But this is not because a person’s motives are irrelevant, but because a person may be right despite his motives. And even if a person’s motives may weaken the evidence present in his claim, it would indeed be silly to think that the full response to an argument could be that the person does not have good motives relative to truth. If you are going to refute an argument, you should do that by discussing the matter of the argument. Lewis is quite right on this point.

Regarding Lewis’s last point in this paragraph, it is unlikely that many people actually had the intention to “prove that all proofs are invalid.” People really do have various motives for their beliefs, but this does not prove that their beliefs are false, nor does it show that their arguments do not work.

Lewis concludes the essay:

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

“Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes,” indicates that Lewis is confused.

Thoughts surely do have causes, and the efficient cause is generally the human will. Reasons and motives are both “why” people choose to believe things, and consequently are the formal aspect of that efficient cause, or in other words are final causes. It might seem a little strange to say that the fact that two and two make four is the final cause of my belief that if I have two shoes and acquire two more, I will have four shoes. But it only seems strange because we do not notice that final causes themselves come in varieties. And in any case, this is partly a question of framing. If I say, “I think I would have four shoes because to think otherwise would call into question that two and two make four,” then it is clear enough that my belief is for the sake of the truth that two and two make four.

Lewis fails to note the distinction between various types of causes, and so supposes that if thoughts have causes in an ordinary sense, they cannot have reasons, but this does not follow. Reasons are simply one of the causes that thoughts have, but they can have other causes at the same time.

Someone might say that this blog engages in a good deal of what C.S. Lewis calls Bulverism, and this concern is one of the “tainted thoughts” which led me to compose this post. Thus I summarize my response to this concern:

More or less all claims are affected by motives other than truth. But this is not irrelevant, because some claims are more affected by such motives than others, and to the extent that this is the case, this weakens the evidence contained in those claims. Thus I would not consider it irrelevant even if I point out someone’s motives without proving directly that he is mistaken.

Nonetheless, in practice I do not usually do this. Generally if I think that someone is wrong, I will argue this directly, and only reveal someone’s motives in addition, which even Lewis concedes can be relevant in that situation.

There is one possible additional objection, which Lewis does not formulate explicitly, but which he indicates when he says, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” The objection would be that whether he is right or wrong is “the only real issue.” So even if you first argue that someone is wrong, proceeding to discuss his motives is inappropriate, since it is no part of the issue, and it seems merely insulting.

I disagree that whether someone is right or wrong is the only real issue. As I have stated before, I do not think I really understand someone until I understand why he says what he does. And real people do not only have reasons for their beliefs, but motives as well. So in order to understand someone as well as possible, it is necessary to know not only his reasons, but also any other motives that he has.

But since people rarely notice their own motives, this suggests that I am saying that frequently people do not even understand themselves. And this is quite true, and in this way St. Paul says that some have “turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”