Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality

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 (!).

The argument:

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.

Some clarifications:

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..

The argument:

1.) Mind knows the mind 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 atoms without having to be encountered in the world and without us having to form a theory about them.

The knowledge spoken of in the conclusion is either knowledge that something exists or knowledge of what the nature of the thing is. 

If it’s the first, 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.

But if we can’t know that atoms exist in the way the conclusion describes, a fortiori the same process can’t tell us what their nature is.

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 commits 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 if there is any such fallacy, it’s from confusing that something is and what it it, but both are impossible, as shown above.

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.



1 Comment

  1. A Small Sam said,

    April 12, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Dear Mr Chastek,

    I’ve been reading a lot about the immateriality of the intellect in recent weeks as it is one of the sticking points which is preventing me from moving from a sort of Aristotelian/Platonic (Averroist?) philosophy to a Christian one, which I am attracted to; and whenever I come across this form of argument from the mind’s immediate apprehension of itself it seems to me that it runs into an objection on the following (rough) lines, which I derive basically from Merleau-Ponty:

    1.) Other people have minds.

    2.) I do not know about other people’s minds until I encounter them and/or in other ways come to deal with and understand abotut them (as a child).

    3.) If I do not know that other people have minds, I am not a competent user of the English word ‘mind’. [If I came up with a word in isolation and appplied it to my own mind only, then a) it would not be the same word, and b) it would suffer from Wittgensteinian private language problems.]

    4.) If I am not a competent user of the word ‘mind’, I cannot competently apply the word to my own mind.

    5.) If I cannot apply the word ‘mind’ to my own mind, I do not know that I have a mind (if ‘mind’ in the sentence is the English word ‘mind’; and mutatis mutandis for equivalent or related concepts in other languages).

    6.) If I do not know that I have a mind until I have encountered and come to understand about other people, it cannot be the case that I know that I have a mind without the need for a meeting or a the construction of a theory, or in some other way unreflectively or a priori.

    7.) Therefore, it is false that mind knows mind without the need for a meeting or the formation of a theory, or without in some other way coming to understand something not available to it without experience or investigation.

    I have so far been unable to get around this kind of argument without seeming to court the conclusion that I don’t know whether other people have minds, which seems to me a sufficiently absurd outcome to be a reductio. I’m interested to know if you have any thoughts or response to it.


%d bloggers like this: