A comparison of various methods of coming to know the world

From a commenter at Edward Feser’s site:

[E]veryone is conflating immateriality with subsistence. But that’s a mistake. According to St. Thomas, all souls are immaterial. (Cf. ST I, 75, 1) But, of course, not all souls are subsistent.

The argument is close enough to the texts to do what it needs to, but q. 75 a. 1 is not speaking to whether the soul is material, but whether it is an actual body, which is an easier question to answer and one about which there is far more agreement, since even Physicalists would agree that there is no evidence that soul is a body.

Few people are comfortable with using the word “soul” (this is true even of many theists, as the English translation of the mass makes clear) but if we take soul as whatever a living body has that a dead body doesn’t (where “has” is used in the broadest and vaguest possible sense) then the first theory about its nature we should consider is whether the physical body has a soul the way an engine has gas or a trebuchet has a counterweight; that is, we should consider whether the reason why the living being can do certain things is because there is some body within it that is lost at death. St. Thomas shows this is impossible since such an account is incoherent: the whole thing we are trying to explain is what makes the difference between one and the same body, and the soul-as-body account doesn’t do this at all.

What is interesting in this account is that it seems like exactly the sort of question that we contemporary people would want to solve with an experiment – and several quite good experiments have already been done long ago. We could weigh the body before and after death, or perhaps measure the volume it displaces. If we found a change, this would count as some sort of evidence for the soul-as-body hypothesis. This makes the question that St. Thomas is asking a good place to raise the question of the relative merits and downsides of the experimental method of discovering truths about the world and the (unnamed) approach that St. Thomas uses.

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