The interaction problem

Stephen Pinker  (Via Marilynne Robinson via Martin Cothran) refutes, by way  rhetorical question, the existence of the soul-as-understood-by-Stephen-Pinker:

How does the spook interact with solid matter? How does an ethereal nothing respond to flashes, pokes and beeps and get arms and legs to move?

Ah yes, the interaction problem. Is that still around? Apparently so.

In one way, it’s hard to see how this problem arises: souls are forms, and so if this were really a problem, then there would also be an interaction problem for basketballs: How does a sphere interact with solid rubber? How does a Euclidean solid respond to the molecular structure of hydrocarbons? What an untenable dualism!”

But isn’t the soul a form in the substantial order, and not in the accidental order? Yes, but this still doesn’t give a duality of substances. Thomists don’t believe that the body has a substantial form that the soul is added to. The substantial character of the body is simply a certain emanation from the soul, and is lost immediately at death. “Corpse” is not the name of some one thing, but of a heap of things that have no actual relation to one another. Where is the duality? Interaction problems are between two things, but there simply are not two things here.

It turns out that soul-as-Stephen-Pinker understands it is a silly and mythical entity that owes its existence to Stephen Pinker (or any of us) being deceived by false imagination. First, we turn forms into things simply speaking; when in fact forms are certain things only with qualification that are necessary to explain what we call things simply speaking. If the verbiage there is too dense, just ask yourself if the roundness of a basketball a thing without any qualification. When you see a basketball, do you say that you see two things, a basketball and its roundness? There is also a second deception by false imagination that Pinker manifests by his “spook” talk.  Pinker is clearly conceiving immateriality as a kind of material existence- for it is precisely as material that beings exclude each other, become impenetrable to one another, and can only assimilate others by destroying them (that is, by digesting them). Immateriality is a negation of exactly this sort of exclusion that one is tacitly assuming when he posits an interaction problem between spirit and matter. Immateriality is (self evidently) the negation of material parts, and whatever lacks material parts cannot be excluded or rejected by the material parts of another, any more than a triangle is destroyed by adding a point to it. So even if one said that the material body and the immaterial soul were two substances simply speaking, there would be no problem of how one interacted with the other by perfectly penetrating and incorporating itself into it, since immateriality removes the impediment to this perfect penetration.



  1. Ed L said,

    May 20, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    This is a good example of the incredible accuracy of Aristotle. Plato would have had this problem for every form: by noticing that forms are only separate in consideration, Aristotle saves himself from a ton of difficulties

  2. John Farrell said,

    May 21, 2010 at 7:14 am

    I think it was in one of his commentaries (perhaps on St. Paul) that Aquinas said, “my soul is not I…”

    I think though, that Catholics can perpetuate Pinker’s kind of misunderstanding when public statements, such as Pope John Paul’s on evolution, declare that the soul is created directly by God (as if it was a thing ‘added on’), even if the human body evolved according to Darwinian processes. Materialists love to mock this statement. We know this is not what the Pope meant (that the soul is a kind of ghost), but it is a very easy thing to miscommunicate if one is not careful.

    Excellent post.

  3. May 21, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I wonder if we haven’t institutionalized this kind of mistake by blindly accepting the Analytic account of any distinction as being a “dualism”. Dualism means two things; two things reduces first of all to the quantitative- but in the paradigm example of dualism-Descartes- we see someone who is trying to distinguish the spiritual from the quantitative. Calling this “two things” is already stretching the meaning of “two”- didn’t Descartes tell us that the other thing was other than quantitative? Other than res extensa? The language of Analytic philosophers makes us image spirit as outside of matter as some second thing which is homogeneous with it. One suspects that Descartes himself might be pretty annoyed with this sort of characterization.

    Teh soul is that by which the body (say the human body) lives, but there is no human body that is not living. The separation of the soul at death does not leave a human body- corpses are no more human than statues. Again, where is the dualism? Where are there even two things? The body of any living thing is simply an emanation of soul, not some act that the soul shines upon. Dividing the two is like trying to divide candle flames from candlelight.

    • John Farrell said,

      May 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

      Well said. And I think there’s a book here. Perhaps, “A Short History of the Soul?”


  4. Crude said,

    May 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    A very naive question from me here. But are you therefore saying the thomistic view of the soul/humanity is not a dualist one / is a monist one after all?

    I’m guessing no, but it does sound as if you’re saying that just as where the ‘form’ of a basketball is not some distinct “thing”, neither is the form of man. And therefore thomism isn’t a dualist metaphysic.

  5. May 28, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Yes, that’s exactly right. Dualism, if it means anything, means two things; But soul and body aren’t two things, even in the special case of the human soul, which can survive separation. As a proof, there is no such thing as a human body with no soul.

    • Crude said,

      May 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm

      Alright. But in that case, what’s the ‘one thing’ present in a thomistic monism?

      I’m trying to understand this. I’ve always gotten the distinction that the soul was the form of the body, along the lines of what you’ve said here (not distinct from it, as if roundness is distinct from a ball). Is thomism then something more like property dualism, in your view?

      • Ed L said,

        May 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm

        The one thing is the man. Aristotle says that the unity of form and matter in the Category of substance is the greatest unity in the physical world.

      • May 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm

        Read Questiones disputae de anima, a. 1 (there’s only one question, but for whatever reason the Latin is always plural). Substance must be separated on the one hand from accident, and on the other hand from the parts of a substance. We separate it from the former by saying it has a per se subsistence and from the latter by saying it has a complete species and is not defined in relation to some other. The human soul differs from accidents by having a per se subsistence, but this does not suffice to make it a substance: the soul is a part of a human composite, and so if we call it a substance simply, then a human person would dissolve into an innumerable multitude (since all his parts would become substances) forget dualism, we’d have to admit that a man was as any things as he was organs, bones, cells, atoms, etc. The separated soul continues to be defined in relation to a body, sc. as a part of it.

        “Substance dualism” talk will be forever plagued by never talking about what we mean when we speak of substances. Feser doesn’t think man is two things, or that hylemorphic dualism is a dualism of two things (and he has to pick the battles he wants to fight), but I think it is a mistake to let the term “dualism” slide. There simply aren’t two “things” as we use the word “thing” in English on the Thomistic account. No one thinks I am three things because I am a self with a stomach and a brain. Parts are not called “things” simply speaking, and they are certainly not called “things” in a way that can include the man who has them as just another thing.

  6. Ed L said,

    May 28, 2010 at 9:45 am

    How exactly does the intellect fit in? Since, as Aristotle says, it is not the form of any organ, it would seem that there is a kind of dualism in the rational animal.

  7. Edward said,

    May 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Philosophers like Feser and Oderberg use the term “hylemorphic dualism” to attempt to describe Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s account of man. Obviously the term “hylemorphic” is meant to separate it from either substance or property dualism, which are both untenable as traditional philosophical doctrines. The problem, though, is that the term “dualism” used by Feser and Oderberg seems to require conceptual separation from the other dualisms as well. The dualism of which they speak cannot correspond to anything in reality without qualification. The “dualism” of Aquinas and Aristotle is only an actual dualism in the intellect. So we are able to consider act and potency or form and matter separately, but this is as far as the dualism goes. We are not actually speaking about two realities; only one.

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