Lecture on Soul 1: Soul as opposed to machine.

“Today we begin a unit on the soul. I had originally planned to start with a series of readings from Plato and Gregory Thaumaturgus, but in reading them I was struck that we have some serious historical and doctrinal impediments to understanding what they were talking about when they spoke of the soul. We simply don’t believe the soul exists, and even when we do, we’re not sure what to do with it.

“Let’s start by pointing out that the soul is a source of life. Now all of you come to this class having spent an entire year engaged in the study of life in our mandatory Sophomore biology course. So what did you learn about the soul? Nothing at all, of course. It never came up, not even to be denied. Sometimes a certain sort of Christian, while explaining this-or-that in Biology,  will wave his hand in the direction of a human soul, perhaps by saying that (for example) that evolution is an account of the development o the human body, but not an account of the human soul. This claim itself is pretty odd (is the claim that natural selection makes only zombies? Inanimate things?) But we need not think too hard about it since nothing more is said about the claim, and the “soul” that is introduced by such a remark serves no biological value. It is as if your algebra teacher interrupted class to say that “God made the integers, and man made everything else”. True or not, we will just keep on doing the equations as though it never happened.

“We don’t believe there is a soul. How did this happen?

“To oversimplify, we might draw a division in the west around the time of the Reformation. Before then, there was a pronounced mythical presence of things in the world. A river might be sacred or enchanted, forests could be magical, people had harmless talismans and even performed animal sacrifices. Mythical beings were widely believed, and even the very intelligent took them as a possibility. St. Thomas, for example,  relays report of St. Augustine that women are impregnated by Satryrs, and he discusses how we should understand such an impregnation (ST. 1 q. 51 a. 3). Though we will not claim that an idea like the soul is equivalent to these,  the idea of a soul does have an immediate, intuitive appeal in such a world that it does not have to us. A world that saw it as common to have spirits in things was well-disposed to see a spirit in man. We don’t condemn these practices as silly or backward, but they certainly do seem to be against the rationalist, scientific spirit. At any rate, after the reformation, there was a concerted effort by both Catholics and Protestants to drive out practices and beliefs like this as superstitious.

‘The scientific account of life is much more hygienic and simple. Consider, as a striking image of this new conception, the image of Galvani’s frogs.  Cut off a frog leg. It’s dead and inert. Then run an electric current through it. It jumps. If we run with this idea, what do we get? An organ is just an inert machine that performs a set action as soon as connected to a power source. Life differs from a machine not essentially, by “having a soul” or something like this, but only materially: a living thing is a machine that happens to be made out of flesh. Or perhaps it’s that a machine is just a living thing made out of metal. What’s the difference? The two only differ in the way that a red letter “M” differs from a black letter “M”. Different matter, that’s it. This idea of life treats a living system as a processor that runs off of free energy, processes stimuli, and produces operations and outputs. We here have an idea of nature where everything is moved by another, ad infinitum, and if there is some first mover at all, it is outside the natural order. What is is left over for an idea like “soul” to explain?

“Can’t we press this idea further? Why is it that we do not even see it as pious to do away with the idea of the soul? If we are committed to rational, analytic accounts of life – even in our spirituality, as many of us are – and such an account has no place for talking about souls, then why don’t we reject it as a superstition along with amulets to ward off shipwreck or the evil eye?

“Although the rational account is hygienic and simple, and though we might be at a loss to figure out what a soul is supposed to do within it, it is obviously a controversial claim. It’s just not the same thing to do away with a river god or a tree dryad and to deny that man has a soul. But we can at least now be clear about the opposition: those who assert the existence of soul say that there is something in nature that moves itself; those who deny that there is any such thing as soul say that everything in nature is moved by another, in the sense that nothing is responsible for its own action.

“And so by a ‘soul’ we mean here something that is (1) in nature (2) active an not merely passive (3) intrinsic to things, and (4) spontaneous and self-motiviated, which finds its fullest expression in being free and responsible. In addition to this, (5) we mean (for reasons we cannot go into now) that whatever is rational or intellectual belongs to a soul as opposed to a machine. We also believe (again for reasons we won’t defend here) that (6) reproduction can never be an activity a machine can perform.

”The first note of ‘soul’ we will see in the reading of Thaumaturgus is the idea of the soul being responsible, i.e. moving itself and not merely being moved. Because of this, the soul can be considered as the subject of virtues, which is crucial to his argument.

Created goodness/ existence etc. compared to the phenomenological

Try understanding the analogies of the world to God by the relation of folk phenomenal concepts (like “sunrise”) to the more critical and refined theories (solar system). On the one hand, the solar system makes a sunrise as real and as dignified as it can be: an object of scientific knowing, seen for what it is, a finite object participating in a larger whole of discourse. On the other hand, the solar system theory shows there is no such thing as a “sunrise”, though we keep the term as the necessary first step we had to take to come to the solar system theory at all. We needed the relative name (it is only sunrise relative to us) to come to the absolute account. Created goodness or existence are like that sunrise: in one way they find their fullest dignity in the relation to divinity, are finite participations in a larger totality, and are relative designations leading to an absolute one; but at the same time there is a sense in which this very context in which we come to see the absolute shows that “no one is good except God alone” or “I am who is; you are she who is not”. Nevertheless, we keep the first imposition of name as a necessary point of departure which eventually comes to see that there is something unfitting about it.

Notes inspired by Lawrence Krauss

-This started as a comment I was writing on Feser’s blog, but then I thought it didn’t strike the right tone, and it gave rise to other ideas.

-When theologians speak of creation ex nihilo, they do not believe in the existence of the thing after the “ex”. So if Lawrence Krauss wants to replace theology with the working of Quantum vacuums and virtual particles, then, ex hypothesi, he does not believe in the existence of Quantum vacuums and virtual particles.

-This might be one avenue to understand Heidegger’s critique of science that “it cares nothing for nothing”. In fact, this lack of care is so pronounced that even when the scientist is explicitly trying to address the problem of nothing, he wants to turn it into something. The desire is as old as Democritus, who might have been the last scientist to knowingly do what he did: i.e. make some pure, uniform, dark substance or being out of pure non-being.

-Science, whether considered as dialectical/operational or as radically Democritian, has at its root the existential equivalence of being and non-being.

objection: if “the nothing” fails to be somehow a substance, then there is no alternative state to the created thing. Therefore there is no alternative to being created. Creation simply must be, and there is no necessity to explain it.

response: The alternative to a substance is not a substance. You are assuming the equivalence of being and non being in some sort of homogeneous theater, which makes it easy for you think of being as a mere “brute fact”.

-The nothing is not the womb or theater of being, but the limit of being as limited. The nothing is opposed to creation (the limited) but not to God. This is one way to put the difference between divine being and created being: the former is not opposed to the nothing while the latter by nature is.

-The first principle of out intellect is the principle of contradiction because we are limited intellects knowing limited things. God does not need the principle of contradiction to know himself, i.e. to generate the Son.

-“The first thing that falls into the mind is being, then that this being is not that.” Being falls into the mind as infinite, and is then made finite. When I say it is first infinite, one thing I mean is this: being and all of the transcendentals can only be said per se and primo of God himself, though this is obviously not the first thing we recognize about them. But it is latent in the names themselves from the beginning. Just as the one who discovered mean molecular motion could know that this is what we have always been talking about when we spoke about heat, the one who comes to see God can know this is always what we have been talking about when we spoke about existing, good, true, dignified, Father, person, free, mover, cause etc. The other meanings of the terms get kept out of honor for what we came to know first (“analogy” is not a report about things, but about how we came to know them.)


Whether some created thing is possible before it is created

(Work in progress)

It would seem that it is, for

Objection 1. Before God creates, he is able to create. But the possibility of any created thing just is the ability of God to create it.

Objection 2. What is not possible cannot exist. But the denial of the thesis means that the created thing is not possible, and then exists, which is a contradiction.

Objection 3. What at one time is and at another time is not is possible. But some created things at one time were not and at another time are.

Objection 4.What is conceivable is possible. But some created things are conceivable before they are created.

 I answer that: Possibility can be considered either (a.) outside the agent or (b.) within the power of the agent, and either (c.) as opposed to the impossible or (d.) as opposed to the necessary. But in none of these ways can the created thing exist before it is created.

a.) Any pre-existence of a thing outside of the agent is superfluous to the act of creation. For creation consists precisely in being ex nihilo, that is, from no pre-existing being. But possible being is one of the divisions of being.

b.) No possibility can be formally a relation to the power of the agent; for if it were, then to say “X  is able to do this because it is possible” would mean that “X is able to do this because X is able to do this”; and if this were the case, we would lose all distinctions among the powers themselves, for each would consist simply in X being able to do what it can.

The question of the possibility of things anterior to the power of creation in the intellect is not dealt with here.

c.) When we speak of possible as opposed to impossible, the possible must be taken in the same order as the impossible. But the impossible clearly does not exist in the real order, so the possible as opposed to the impossible does not exist in the real order, but in some ability of the mind to form propositions (a sign of this is that even a necessary being is “possible” in this sense of possible, i.e. we can see that we could form true propositions about it, etc.). But a thing is created by receiving real existence in act. Therefore it is not of the same order as the possible as opposed to the impossible, and so does not even exist at all, much less pre-exist in this order.

d.) The possible as opposed to the necessary does at least exist in the same order as the created, but either outside an active agent or within it; and so reduces to the critique in (a.) and (b.)

Veritas adequatio intellectus ad rem

-Vision is the adequation of optical organs to the EM spectrum; hearing is the adequation of auditory organs to percussion waves in a medium, and all other senses (whether actual or possible, and they are infinite) are a similar sort of atunement to some bandwidth of reality, or some surface-level manifestation of the physical world. But truth is the adequation of intellect to thing.

-Adequation is being equal to (ad-equatio).

-When we understand truth in opposition to other sorts of knowing, three things follow: (1.) “thing” is infinite and transcendental in opposition to limited, surface-level modes of knowing, (2.) ‘Truth’ shares in this in a complete manner by the adequation. (3.) Intellect contains truth, and in this sense transcends even transcendence.

-There are things we cannot know, even in principle: we can’t know Graham’s number by enumerating it, or various possible languages, or the exact liturgy of the Apostles from known texts, etc. But to know things at all is belongs to intellect; and to fail to know them is from a failure to be commeasurate to a thing. But it’s  no surprise to hear we are not pure intellects.

-Vision is the adequation of optical organs to the EM spectrum, but truth is the adequation of intellect to a thing. But even to see the EM spectrum as a thing is to see it through intellect. It’s not that the world is given to us by sensation and we have to find some special object of intellect on top of it, as though intellect were a sixth sense.

-Plenty of animals have more acute sense powers than us, but they don’t see things for all that.


Is the intelligible object the universal?

The standard way of presenting the problem of universals is, first of all, to see it as a problem of universals – and then to see teh Platonic option as arguing for universals in reality and the Aristotelian/Nominalist position as denying this. But it is not clear that Plato saw it this way. Universality is what is common or alike among many things, but Plato opposes this to what is common or alike in itself. In the Phaedo argument, for example, Plato’s position seems to be that whenever there is a likeness or something common among concrete, individual, material things, that this same likeness is also unlikeness. The idea seems to be pretty simple: “G” and “L” are alike as consonants and unlike in their pronunciation; and G and G are alike in pronunciation though unlike in their unique positions. The likeness of a multitude always comes with some unlikeness, and therefore so long as the universal has some reference to a multitude it will always be bound up with its contrary.

[It is hard not to think of Leibniz’s indiscernibility of identicals: the multitude can never perfectly realize identity, for any two things that are arguendo perfectly identical will nevertheless have to have some feature that distinguishes them as two things, for example, having different positions. But if it is right that the multitude is constituted by the finite, i.e. by what is this and not that, then what is not finite has possibilities of identity that cannot be realized by the material or finite. This opens an avenue for the critique of Analytic accounts of the Trinity.]

And so any likeness seen as a likeness among a multitude will always be mixed with its contrary, but likeness as intelligible (likeness “as such/in itself/as an abstract concept, etc.) is never mixed with its contrary. And so likeness as such is divided from that sort of likeness that is defined as a common feature among a multitude composed of the finite, that is, the universal.


Replacing infinite regress with the totality of phenomena in cosmological arguments

I think that the denial of an infinite regress in cosmological arguments is self-evident (since an appeal to infinite causes no more explains the effect than the stability of the earth can be explained as the effect of turtles all the way down) but it’s not necessary to appeal to this denial to make a cosmological argument. Avicenna, for example, replaces this step in the argument with what might be called an appeal to the insufficiency of the totality, regardless of whether the totality is infinite or finite.

Consider the First Way, which starts by observing the existence of motion among moved movers. Next, rather than denying that a series of movers can be infinite, instead consider the totality of motions by moved movers. This totality is either caused to move by the whole, or by some part. But if some part moves all the others, then that part is an unmoved mover (which is impossible, since it is one of the totality of moved movers) and if the whole is the source of motion, this either means every part is an unmoved mover (same problem as before) or we are talking about the whole in opposition to all of its parts; but there is no such thing as a whole in opposition to all its parts.

Even if one took issue with the reasons given, the basic sense is to consider the totality of all things established at the first stage of the cosmological argument, and then to say that the totality, whether considered as all its parts or some of them,  cannot account for what is observed at this first stage.

Causality and pre-existence (II)

If causality is the pre-existence of a thing, it is evident that the existent is really divided from a caused  cause, and so that there is no logical necessity that what exists be caused.

We look for causes because the paradigm case of explaining what/why a thing exists involves tracing it back in time behind that threshold when it began to exist. In crossing over this threshold, the causes emerge, diverse and converging on the existent.

Causality does not mean the same thing in what does not come to be, i.e. mathematical or spiritual things (Newton placed mechanics prior to geometry, as the producer of the geometrical forms. But this is either metaphor or nonsense.) These things only pre-exist in mind and not in anything outside of it.

Becoming, or nature, is pre-existence outside of mind. Nature has a double reduction to its pre-existence outside mind, and in this line it is somehow infinite; and to the mind in virtue of which nature can be “outside”.

Naturalist notes.

-Assume: there is only an engineering difference, and not an ontological one, between the brain and a computer.

Naturalist: Therefore everything thought to be intentional is just physical.

Dualist or Cartesian: Therefore the brain is an instrument of human action, just as a computer is.

-Say I can work with fundamental particles like Legos, and I have a lot of time on my hands. So I assemble a full grown human. Therefore, I have made an artificial intelligence, right?

Naturalist: Insemination suffices to make a human being. But insemination is physical, therefore the physical suffices to account for a human being.

-Forget artificial intelligence. What would machine reproduction be? Take the simplest case: if you take a potato, you can’t point to any part of it and say “this is the part that is supposed to break off and form a new potato”.  If you designed a machine to break apart and assemble a new machine, it would not be reproducing itself, it would simply be two identical machines at different stages of assembly,  temporarily attached. You might as well say two engines are a family because you put them in the same shed.

-Artificial intelligence is really just intelligence we can control, i.e. slavery. Art seems to intuit this: whenever we make clones, they tend to be slaves.

-The scientist started with operational definitions. This is fine, until either he or someone else starts declaring ontological conclusions. But the operational definition never cared about the difference between being and non-being. Absences, idealizations, and purely theoretical entities all exist qua operationally though not “really” (whatever this means, though all sides agree to it). Black boxes, frictionless-motion, ideal gasses, test particles, virtual particles, zero velocity, a single standard for the day and year, and many other things exist operationally even though everyone who uses them realizes that they don’t exist.

-But if we didn’t use operational definition, we would never get to do all these neat things! True, but why assume there are no ontological costs? We all recognize, and even celebrate the fact that pure metaphysics never achieved anything useful (i.e. operational), but given we are separating the two, why assume that the operational could achieve the metaphysical result? We all scoff at the operational costs of the one who chooses to do metaphysics; but we miss the metaphysical costs of the one who wants to define operationally.

If this seems like a negligible difference, consider the operationalist distinction between agent and instrument – which is exactly what is at issue in the debate over brains and thoughts.

An objection to natural theology

When we study (some) natural things, the question of their existence is established by a different power than the theoretical exposition we give of them. The existence of birds is established by simply seeing them while ornithology involves classificatory schemes, theoretical structures, etc. Because of this a problem or paradox or unthinkable conclusion in the theoretical structure of ornithology  does not count as evidence that birds do not exist.

Natural theology is not like this. The existence of the being it studies is established by the same sort of theoretical inference as we use to explicate properties. Because of this, a problem or paradox or unthinkable conclusion in the conclusions of natural theology does (or at least can) count as evidence that the God of the Philosophers does not exist. Said another way, while a strange or unthinkable conclusion in ornithology does not count as a reductio ad absurdum against the existence of birds, it does in natural theology.

But there are many unthinkable conclusions in natural theology (viz. a subject identical to its operation, a being that is free but unable to be determined by anything, a being that must be understood by both concrete and abstract terms, a being whose essence includes the notion of existence, etc.)

Therefore, the unthinkable conclusions of natural theology count as evidence that the God of the Philosophers does not exist.

(It might be better to make the argument turn on the fact that natural theology has no standard by which to distinguish a mere paradoxical conclusion from a reductio ad absurdum against the claim that God exists; and it seems to set the level of proof absurdly high to say we must reach a formal logical contradiction before we have a reductio ad absurdum.)

« Older entries