Ed Feser has a great post on Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality that impresses me with how terribly I often read Augustine: had I just read the argument he cites in De trinitate I probably would have brushed it off with a vague sense that it has to have a mistake somewhere, but the more I had to wrestle with Ed’s presentation the more this vague sense of general Augustinian wrongness faded away. Sadly, I habitually assume that Augustine’s arguments are in need of being tuned up or recast in order to be acceptable. An obvious reason suggests itself for this: I’m used to encountering Augustine as the raw material of competing systems (Franciscan, Thomistic, Calvinist, Mystical, Contemporary) and so I’m habituated to seeing Augustine as saying nothing definite but still being an authority of world historical significance (!).
But if [mind] were any one of [the elements], it would think of this element in a different manner from the rest. That is to say, it would not think of it by means of an image, as absent things or something of the same kind are thought of which have been touched by the sense of the body, but it would think of it by a kind of inward presence not feigned but real — for there is nothing more present to it than itself; just as it thinks that it lives, and remembers, and understands, and wills.
First, I use “mind” as shorthand for what thinks, and which within this thought also knows it “lives and remembers, and understands, and wills”.
Second, I’ll use “atoms” to stand for whatever the elements are, or whatever proportion or arrangement they’re in.
Third, there is a difference between knowing that something is and knowing what something is. We can know that there is lightning without knowing what it is, or that there is a mind without knowing whether it is material or immaterial; biological or mechanical or spiritual, etc..
1.) Mind knows that it exists without having to meet itself or form a theory about itself.
The reason I know that I have a mind is not because I met it in the kitchen this morning and it introduced itself. I also didn’t posit mind as a theory to explain various other facts since it is essential to theories that we don’t take them as facts given from the start, but that there is mind is given from the start.
2.) The mind is atoms.
Assumption for reductio, as the Analytic guys say.
3.)* Therefore, atoms know that they exist without having to be encountered in the world and without us having to form a theory about them.
But we obviously don’t and can’t know that atoms exist like this: we needed a century of arguments from Dalton to Einstein to establish merely that there were such things, even before we gave an account of what they were. And no one would suggest that, even if atoms were as factual as fire (which they’re not)** that we could know that they exist a priori. We still have to meet a fire somewhere to know that there is such a thing.
The conclusion is false and the first premise is given from experience. Therefore (2) is false. Q.E.D.
One objection to this is that it looks like the fallacy of the accident, cf.
I know a man is approaching
The man approaching is Socrates
Therefore I know Socrates is approaching
And so just as a man can be coming without us knowing he is Socrates, so too a mind can be atomic without us knowing that it is atomic. After all, just as it’s not the same thing to be a man and to be Socrates, so also it’s not the same thing to be a mind and to be atomic.
But Augustine’s whole point is that we need to make mind something that is known to exist neither a posteriori nor by theorizing, and material things are not such. Self-knowledge is something essentially different from our knowledge of others or objects.
Another objection is that the proof proves too much: if an atomic mind would know that there are atoms, wouldn’t an immaterial mind know that there is the immaterial? But if this is true, what do we need the proof for? It seems we’d just see the reality of the immaterial a priori.
But far from being an objection, I think this is a very good illustration of the difference between a physical and metaphysical argument. In the physical, we tend to know that something is by direct evidence to the senses, whether by seeing its physical substance or interaction. But metaphysics does not prove that things are in this way, but by seeing that things are as opposed to what is physically present by physical substance or interaction. All our arguments about the physical start by sensing the thing or something it is interacting with, while all our proofs in metaphysics start by proving the existence of something that is neither sensed or interacting with the sensible world. This is why an atomic mind would be immediately known to be atomic, but an immaterial mind has to be known by proving its separation from the sensible world.
*That’s a DARAPTI syllogism, folks. You don’t see many in the wild.
**Even the pictures of atoms by scanning electron microscopes are still mediated by a theory – there is more to the process than just magnifying an image.
***I can’t decide whether these objections are interesting or irrelevant. Oh well.