Aristotelian Eliminative Materialism

A: Well, you’re certainly a first. I can’t say I’ve ever met an Aristotelian Eliminative Materialist.

B: I get that a lot. I didn’t find the Churchlands or Feyerabend all that convincing initially, but I’ve felt forced towards EM by Aristotle for a few years now, so now I read them as supporting arguments for the more fundamental Aristotelian one. Obviously, Aristotle himself wasn’t a Materialist of any sort, but he raised a problem that can only be resolved by EM.

A: This was the problem you were talking about earlier? The one about the agent intellect?

B: “The agent intellect”? You must be a Medievalist – which is fine, I am too. But no one calls it that any more.

A: So what is the problem then?

B: Let me set it up: you understand the difference between the intentional and the physical?

A: Sure. No one who’s heard anything about contemporary philosophy hasn’t heard of that distinction.

B: And that the whole question about them is whether the intentional reduces to the physical or not?

A: Sure – though the distinction might be a bit quick. What about supervenience?

B: I don’t mean to overlook it but only to use a sense of reduction that includes it, namely, we can reduce anything whose existence depends on a more basic level of existence.  In this sense supervenient properties are still causally dependent on the deeper, physical level of existence.

A: Okay. Get it.

B: So lets take as a  first hypothesis that the intentional does not reduce to the physical.

A: Right, but where does Aristotle come into this?

B: Pretty much immediately. You’d agree that, in Aristotle, the human person generates intentional things, right? After all, he’s not Plato, who insisted that there was a separate world of ideas. For Aristotle, we make intelligible ideas. Persons make thoughts, they don’t take them pre-fabricated from some some Platonic warehouse.

A: Right.

B: But that’s the whole problem: how can a person generate an idea, if the idea is irreducible? If the intentional is really irreducible, then there must have always been ideas, or, if you want to posit a finite universe, there must have been ideas as long as there has been time. Remember how “the reducible” is anything whose existence can arise out of something more fundamental?

A: That’s what we said, more or less.

B: But then the irreducible can’t arise out of anything more fundamental, but is simply given. But Aristotle thinks that persons make thoughts.

A: Where’s the problem?

B: How can a thing that has existed for a finite amount of time make something irreducible? Take anything really irreducible in the here and now, like, say, mass-energy or energy or something. The whole point of calling it irreducible is that it doesn’t come to be or disappear but is always conserved. You see? You can’t say both a.)  the intentional is irreducible, and b.) that an individual person makes intentional things, i.e.  a person thinks. You’ve got to pick one or the other. But I wasn’t about to deny that persons think (whatever this means) and so I had to deny that intentional things are irreducible. And so I’m an Aristotelian EMist. Q.E.D.



  1. David T Chua said,

    May 11, 2013 at 11:44 am

    This is an interesting post! I’m not sure how to take it though. What does B think that intentionality is? For if it consists in some kind of grasping of universals by a subject, then it seems that Plato and Aristotle wouldn’t so much disagree over whether people make thoughts or not (for both would say that universals exist prior to our ideas of them), but rather they’d dispute what the universals themselves are like. Is this what B is missing? (Would it still count as reduction if universals exist in the individual?)

    • May 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      For if it consists in some kind of grasping of universals by a subject then it seems that Plato and Aristotle wouldn’t so much disagree over whether people make thoughts or not

      But “to grasp” is not “to make”. Grasping presupposes the thing as given whereas making does not.

      Perhaps B’s point could be put more simply:

      Thoughts are irreducible
      Persons generate thought
      Persons generate the irreducible.

      But the conclusion is impossible, since generating the irreducible is impossible. That which is irreducible is always what perseveres through the change. How can someone generate that whose existence is basic? From what is it generated? And so, B claims, one premise must be false; and in the face of this, it’s easier to reject the major premise than the minor.

      These objections aren’t new, of course, but I’ve tried to update them to the contemporary concern over the intentional and the physical along with making the basic dialectical alternatives more contemporary (in the face of a similar problem, the Medievals were more comfortable arguing whether there was one intellect for everyone while we are more comfortable taking this sort of problem as a fatal problem for the theory.)

      At any rate, I’ve never thought this was anything more than an objection, and like most objections I suppose it has a basic, logical, minimalist response and a more expansive response that does something to better illuminate the nature of the distinction between the intentional and the physical.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 12, 2013 at 11:12 am


        What is your next move in the dialogue after that three-step summary of B in your reply? Keeping in character, what’s B going to do when A comes back at the ambiguity in “irreducible?” All that the non-EMist has to claim is that thoughts are irreducible to the material/physical, not that they are irreducible simply.

        This post might be the nicest framing of “Moderns don’t know what matter is” that Feser is always yammering about.

      • May 12, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        The objection can either run like it does in the above comment or though the agent intellect, but if you run it through the AI, then you’re committed to saying that the intellect is made by an act of creation. STA says just this, but more needs to be said. It is the same created energy that is made in an act of creation and which manifests itself in this or that thought. So what is the relation between the uncreated energy of the AI and the generated existence of that energy in a concept?

        I think there is a good reason to think that if the intentional or AI is reducible that it must reduce to matter. If not, it seems like we’re introducing epicycles.

      • May 13, 2013 at 10:43 am

        I think any response to B has to involve the claim that the agent intellect (and therefore its source as such) does not come to be; that it is not generated. This either means you have to make it, no him, eternal or ungenerated.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 13, 2013 at 11:49 am

        I think I just need a lot more think-time on this one. For now, I just can’t see the radical line you are taking (and I don’t want to cash in “correct formulae” instead of actually thinking it through). All I can see is that the AI can’t be material. The traction you are getting feels to me like a confusion between material and created and I need to “walk it out” before I say more.

  2. hispanglican said,

    May 16, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Someone please correct me if I am mistaken in the following:
    To claim that thought is irreducible does not necessitate that the nature of such irreducible entity be non-finite. It solely states that the nature of the irreducible entity is not reducible to a single category; matter as conceived of by modern physicalism. The conceptual awareness of the bottle in front of me is in a sense grounded in the ontological reality of the bottle and myself, but my awareness of it, while dependent on the reality of our both being objects of “matter”, is distinct from the fact of our “materiality”. In stating that “The whole point of calling it irreducible is that it doesn’t come to be or disappear but is always conserved” is to import a definition of irreducibility in physics and apply it to the nature of thought. This is illegitimate.
    Feedback is appreciated…

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